European Games in Baku promises to be a step into the unknown

You’ve gotta love June: it’s always been a month to savour for those sports fiends among us equally blessed and cursed with a varied palate.

European Games in Baku promises to be a step into the unknown

For the nine months or so prior to it, there is a tendency to fall back on the meat and veg diet of soccer, rugby and, to a lesser extent the GAA’s off-Broadway productions, but June brings with it an opportunity to challenge our taste buds and remind ourselves that there are treats aplenty to be enjoyed beyond our normal daily diet.

Wimbledon hoves into view and with it the rediscovery of people like Andy Murray, Boris Becker and John Inverdale – though the latter has finally paid the price for one too many verbal faux pas on the Beeb with a very public demotion from the nightly highlights show – and talk of volleys, serving speeds and weather forecasts that normally pass most of us by.

The Tour de France, too, causes us to crane our necks beyond paths routinely familiar and marvel/dismiss the ability of men to scale such heights so often. Even the appearance of tournaments such as soccer’s Women’s World Cup and rugby’s U20 World Cup allow us to expand our horizons within codes which can all too often leave us stale or sated to a dangerous degree.

There’s always something new, basically, and never more so maybe than tonight what with the opening ceremony of the inaugural European Games in Baku. The brainchild of Ireland’s Olympic chief Pat Hickey, it remains to be seen what impact that event makes beyond the lead-in controversies over Azerbaijan’s deplorable human rights record.

Hickey’s baby suffered further growing pains just days before its Baku unveiling when it was announced that the Netherlands had performed a U-turn on their agreement to host the 2019 version on the basis that there was no guarantee that enough high-profile athletes would attend an event that would reportedly cost them roughly €125m to put together.

Hickey reacted by admitting that the news was “disappointing” but followed that up with predictably gung-ho talk about how the Games would have a strong and viable host in four years’ time and, whatever peoples’ views on them, Azerbaijan and the people behind them, it must be recognised that it isn’t easy get these big projects off the ground.

Lest we forget, the first soccer World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930 and, though there was no qualification required, a number of European nations balked at the prospect of sending a squad to South America by ocean liner. Almost two decades later and England’s FA was still turning its nose up at a new-fangled concept called the European Cup.

These things clearly take time to catch on, but the news from the Netherlands is not exactly unexpected when placed in the context of the difficulties experienced in finding a suitor for the 2022 Winter Olympics, with the cities of Stockholm, Krakow, Lviv and Oslo all deciding it was a financial burden too far and recoiling from plans to launch bids.

The citizens of Krakow were 70% against the idea of planting the five rings in their bailiwick, while cities in Switzerland and Germany had all said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ before even submitting tenders of interest after their citizenry left them in no doubt that maybe it would be better to focus funds and minds on less exciting projects such as schools and transport.

It’s not surprising, really, when you consider that the final bill for the Games in Sochi last year ran to an eye-watering $51bn and it isn’t just an issue peculiar to Europe. A poll carried out by Boston radio station WBUR this week found that 49% of those asked in Massachusetts were against the proposal to bring the Summer Games to their city and state in 2024.

Add in the stink arising from Fifa’s awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups this last few weeks and there is a very definite swing away from the idea of playing host to the world for these mega-sporting gigs, all of which raises the stakes for the European Games as it seeks to muscle its way into an already crowded calendar.

Part of the reason for the Netherlands’ second thoughts this week boiled down to the fact that swimming and athletics – the two billboard programmes that will offer up second and third-string athletes in Azerbaijan this next two weeks - already have their own continental championships pencilled in for 2019 and thus threatening the star wattage factor yet again.

Those teething problems are also evident in the identity of the 63-strong Irish team that will be led into the newly-built 68,700-capacity Olympic Stadium by Katie Taylor this evening. Our Olympic gold medallist aside, the Irish team will be light on top tier performers though medal opportunities and Olympic qualification will be within the reach of some.

Aileen Reid starts the triathlon as the number one ranked European woman, Scott Evans and Chloe Magee will hope to push deep into the badminton event while Darren O’Neill and Adam Nolan offer Taylor some top-class support in the ring, where most of those Irish eyes tuning in to Setanta Sport’s daily coverage will likely be trained.

For all of us, this is a step into the unknown.


Twitter: @Rackob

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