Organizers: We've proved skeptics wrong on inaugural European Games in Baku

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LONDON — Organizers of the inaugural European Games believe they have defied the skeptics who questioned the need for another multi-sports event in an already-crowded calendar.

Baku is in the final months of preparing to host Europe's first Olympic-style continental games from June 12-28 in the Azerbaijani capital along the Caspian Sea.

"When we got permission to do a feasibility study for these games six or eight years ago, many laughed and joked and thought this would never happen," Patrick Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committees, said Friday. "Now we're in the final straight."

Hickey was the driving force behind the creation of the European Games, which is patterned after established continental events like the Asian Games, Pan American Games and All-Africa Games.

With Europe already having top-level continental championships in athletics, swimming, basketball, soccer and gymnastics, doubters have wondered whether there is a place for a European Games.

"There was a degree of skepticism about the games at the beginning, but we have addressed all those points," said Simon Clegg, a former British Olympic official who serves as chief operating officer for Baku's organizing committee. "There is now a universal enthusiasm for this event across the more than 50 European NOCs."

"I am sure there are still some skeptics out there," Clegg added. "They will be overcome when they see the scale of this event."

More than 6,000 athletes from about 50 countries will be competing in 20 sports in 253 medal events. Eleven of the sports will offer qualifying spots for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

However, the top European athletes in track and field and swimming won't be competing in Baku.

"We knew that from the start," Hickey said in a conference call with reporters from Baku. "We didn't have a lot of time on our side. But we are very happy with that we have. The original idea was to have a maximum of 10 sports. We've jumped to 20 and have refused some sports."

Hickey said the next European Games in 2019 will feature top track and swimming stars. The venue for those games has yet to be determined. Hickey said the EOC is in discussions with six potential host cities, with a decision to be announced as early as next week or in May at the latest.

The officials spoke at the close of the fifth and final coordination commission meeting in Baku ahead of the games.

"We are confident these games will be a big success and put Azerbaijan on the map as an organizer of major sports and multi-sports events," said Spyros Capralos, chairman of the coordination panel.

Azerbaijan officials believe the games could be a springboard for a Baku bid for the 2024 Olympics. Baku bid for the 2016 and 2020 Games but failed to make the short list of finalists. The deadline for submission of 2024 bids to the IOC is Sept. 15.

Clegg said television agreements had been reached in 33 European territories, with minimum guaranteed coverage of 5 hours a day. Clegg said he expects a broadcast deal for the United States to be announced in the next two weeks.

The games will be held in a country under scrutiny for its record on human rights and press freedoms.

Azerbaijan recently detained a prominent investigative journalist whose reporting often featured the business dealings of top politicians in the country. Many activists and independent journalists have been jailed since the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

"I have all the assurances from authorities at the highest level that the principles of the Olympic Charter will be protected throughout the games," Hickey said. "We're very satisfied with the assurances I have received. I am confident they will follow through on their promise."

Hickey also said Azerbaijan will welcome athletes from neighboring Armenia, despite the conflict over the dispute over the sovereignty of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Hickey and IOC President Thomas Bach visited Armenia recently.

"We gave them assurances they would be treated with utmost respect," he said. "The authorities here have kept their word on this. I don't see any problem."

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