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Host Azerbaijan sees success of European Games in making mark on global stage

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BAKU, Azerbaijan — Just as the inaugural European Games have sought to establish themselves on the global sporting calendar, so host nation Azerbaijan has used the event to make its mark on the world stage.

Both have faced widespread skepticism - the games over the patchy standard of competition, Azerbaijan over the jailing of government critics and barring of foreign journalists.

Nevertheless, as the European Games ended Sunday, the oil-rich, ex-Soviet state's government hailed them as a triumph and is now considering bidding for the Olympics.

"It's all about your economic strength, it's all about your level of development," presidential advisor Ali Hasanov said Saturday. "Azerbaijan is the country that actually promotes rights and standards, so I suppose we are able to host even higher-level sporting events."

The national colors of red, blue and green were much in evidence during a closing ceremony that celebrated Azerbaijani traditions and the country's oil-fueled rise to economic prominence. In one signature sequence, a model of a 12th-century tower opened to reveal gleaming modern skyscrapers.

Azerbaijan has until September to decide whether to bid for the 2024 Olympics, something which Sports Minister Azad Rahimov said would require "detailed analysis" of the European Games.

However, Patrick Hickey, the Irish head of the European Olympic Committees, told The Associated Press on Sunday that he expects Azerbaijani officials to "announce very shortly that they will be a bidder" for future Olympics.

Azerbaijan's capital Baku would not need to build much.

The European Games have been hosted in gleaming arenas, many of them new. The jewel in the crown is the 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, which hosted the closing ceremony.

However, a sharp drop in the oil price last year has caused economic pain, with the government curtailing some spending plans while the central bank devalued the currency in February. But Rahimov insisted there were no financial worries for the European Games and that finance would not affect an Olympic bid.

"All our needs were totally fulfilled," he said of the European Games.

PHOTO: Actors perform during the closing ceremony of the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Actors perform during the closing ceremony of the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

The choice of Azerbaijan as host was always controversial, with the country's human rights record coming under close scrutiny. Opposition activists and human rights campaigners accused the government of trying to silence critics ahead of the games by jailing them on trumped-up charges. The authorities claim the prosecutions were valid.

Sport and politics mixed on the night of the opening ceremony as prominent opposition journalist Emin Huseynov, who had spent 10 months sheltering in the Swiss embassy after being accused of financial crimes, was allowed to leave the country on the Swiss foreign minister's plane.

Some journalists who had previously reported on human rights issues in Azerbaijan were not issued accreditation for the games by the country's authorities.

Baku's arenas have been packed with home fans at almost every event despite concerns over the quality of some of the sporting competition. Athletics was held as a team competition for Europe's weakest track and field nations, while swimming was for under-18s only. Hickey admits the two sports were "not the real deal" in Baku and says he is making progress in arranging higher-level competitions in those sports for the next European Games in 2019.

Other events, particularly those offering qualifying spots for the Olympics, have seen much stronger fields.

Home crowds have had plenty to cheer, with Azerbaijan storming to a surprise second place in the medal table after a dominant performance in the many combat sports on the program.

Russia sent its top athletes to the games as a warm-up for next year's Olympics and was rewarded by winning 79 gold medals out of 253 available, almost four times as many as its closest rival.

Russia showed signs it could be a major player in aquatic events for years to come, winning 31 gold medals in the pool. Sixteen-year-old Arina Openysheva led the way with seven golds and one silver, racing with almost Michael Phelps-like dominance.

While host nation Azerbaijan is looking forward to holding Formula One racing next year and European Championship soccer in 2020, the future of the European Games is less certain, with no host for the next edition and only patchy media coverage in some major European markets - where the competition has often been overshadowed by football's ongoing Women's World Cup.

Plans for the 2019 games were thrown into turmoil two days before the opening ceremony when the Netherlands pulled out as host, citing cost concerns. Hickey says he is in contact with "six or seven" potential hosts for 2019 and expects a decision by the end of the year.

He insists the European Games, designed to imitate the long-running Pan-American Games and Asian Games, have found relevance in a packed sporting calendar.

"Azerbaijan did a great job," Hickey told the AP. "It's given us a great European spirit. Many countries have won medals here that would not win medals in the Olympic Games, so it's given us a real continental games feel."

In his closing speech at Sunday's ceremony, Hickey faced down the critics of the games and their host: "I say this, with complete certainty: the future is bright for Azerbaijan. The future is bright for the European Games."

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