Lady Gaga starred as the inaugural European Games were declared open in Baku’s Olympic Stadium on Friday night but the celebratory atmosphere could not disguise a prevailing sense of tragedy and controversy.
A crowd in excess of 60,000 watched the American musician sing a version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” after athletes from most of the 50 competing nations had paraded around its perimeter.
Armenia, with whom the host nation is involved in a long-running feud over the disputed Nargorno-Karabakh region, seemingly only sent a delegation of seven dignitaries to the ceremony – and they were loudly booed.
The party had been put in sharp perspective earlier on Friday when officials from the Austrian Olympic Committee confirmed 15-year-old synchronized swimmer Vanessa Sahinovic had been left with serious spinal injuries after being hit by a bus in the athletes’ village.
And frustration continued to mount over the number of journalists denied entry to Azerbaijan to cover the Games, with the German television broadcaster Ard TV confirming it had joined with the Guardian in being refused admission.
The Games were opened by Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, watched by dignitaries including Russian president Vladimir Putin and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach.
Pat Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committees, said: “Sport has a unique power to affect positive change; to instil a set of values that make change inevitable – what president Bach calls a universal law of sport.”
There was no disputing the genuine enthusiasm of the largely local crowd, who cheered neighbours Georgia and Turkey but saved a mighty, sustained roar for their own team – who were last to enter the stadium.
Great Britain’s 160-strong team had been led into the stadium by London 2012 gold medallist Nicola Adams, while fellow boxer and five-time world champion Katie Taylor carried the Ireland flag.
Many of the British and Irish athletes were hoping to use the Baku Games to pick up qualification points or direct quota places towards their main goal of reaching next summer’s Rio Olympics.
The first medal events were set to be contested in Saturday in karate, mountain biking, women’s triathlon and wrestling, the latter promising to be an interesting experience for Armenian medal favourite Roman Amoyan.
But the first heroic performance of the Games had come in the opening session of the synchronized swimming competition when Austrian sisters Anna-Maria and Eirini-Marina Alexandri ranked fourth after the preliminary stage.
The pair had urged team officials to allow them to take part despite the tragedy involving their team-mates on Thursday, which had left Sahinovic, who underwent a 10-hour operation after being flown back to Vienna, in a medically induced coma.
Austrian team press officer Wolfgang Eichler said: “It is still difficult to tell the impact of the injury because doctors need a week to be really precise. Her life is not in danger but her spine has been severely damaged.”
The Alexandri sisters were cheered warmly by the crowd at the Baku Aquatics Centre, and Eichler added: “They were swimming for Vanessa – it was their wish and the doctors from our team were saying it was good for them in order to cope with the situation.
“It is tragic and for us it is a really sad situation. It is our focus to treat them (the athletes in Baku) in the best way and get them the best assistance.”