Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Notes on the European Games in Baku

1. "Imagine there's no countries"
The inaugural European Games have been held in Baku, Azerbaijan.  The opening ceremony, held on June 12th, saw Lady Gaga cover John Lennon's Imagine - with no sense of irony at all - in the 68,700 seater Olympic Stadium. Over the course of 17 days some 5898 athletes, representing 50 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) from across the continent, competed in 20 sports. By the end, the UK stood third in the medal table, behind Russia and the hosts. Scant attention was paid to the Games in the British press or on television.

2. "We were not convinced about the quality of some of the individual events"
Despite a sizeable Team GB contingent, including Nicola Adams, Ed McKeever and Gemma Gibbons, there were certainly strictly sporting reasons why the European Games merited so little attention in the UK. The program consisted of a range of minority sports such as Beach Soccer, Sambo and Shooting. Without the allure of the Olympics' history, prestige or brand recognition, the European Games singularly failed to capture the imagination. The two sports that traditionally prove to be the largest draw during the Olympics proper - swimming and athletics - were listed respectively as junior and third-tier events in Baku. 

The Games were shown live on BT Sport in the UK, seemingly the result of other broadcasters reluctance to commit capital to an unknown quantity. Neil Sloane, director of sport at ITV said purchasing the rights to the European Games "didn't make any financial sense". Meanwhile Barbara Slater, head of sport at the BBC, said "We were not convinced about the quality of some of the individual events and we have a finite resource. We invest in the European athletics championships, the European basketball championships, the European swimming championships...so we were going to take away from some of our existing relationships to invest in that."

3. “Tell the world about our problems and you will be punished”
The coverage that the European Games did receive, however, invariably had little to do with the sporting contests on offer, focusing instead on the country's political situation. A number of human rights organisations repeatedly drew attention to the repressive nature of President Ilham Aliyev’s government. For instance, Human Rights Watch records that:
“The Azerbaijani government escalated repression against its critics, marking a dramatic deterioration in its already poor rights record. The authorities convicted or imprisoned at least 33 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists, and bloggers on politically motivated charges, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding.”
Staging the 2015 European Games merely served to exacerbate the draconian policies of Aliyev, as the Azerbaijani government sought to silence critical and dissenting voices. Those domestic journalists who asked awkward questions, such as Idrak Abbasov, have been “beaten, bruised and, eventually, exiled”. Prior to the Games, representatives from such organisations as Amnesty International, the Guardian, Radio France International and German broadcaster ARD were all barred from entering Azerbaijan. For Amnesty International’s Denis Krivosheev, the government were issuing a statement of intent: “The message is: ‘Tell the world about our problems and you will be punished’”.

4. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.”
When announcing the Games back in 2012 the European Olympic Committee (EOC) promised they would be “a tool with which to enhance the attractiveness of sport”. A cursory glance at the political furore surrounding the Baku Games would call that into question. Indeed, given its limited appeal to fans and broadcasters, and the already packed sporting calendar, it seems a little odd that the representatives of Europe’s various NOCs should institute a European Games at all. Certainly there was opposition from other quarters, including Denis Oswald, president of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), who highlighted the pressures on competitors: "Our first concern is for the athletes. In Europe there are so many competitions. We should not push the athletes to do any more,"

Reading between the lines one can possibly detect the faintest reluctance on the part of NOCs in committing to a project the EOC declared had been in the “Olympic air” for some time. While a majority voted in favour of the proposal it was accompanied by a guarantee that “that the event will not cost them a penny, but bring them financial gains.” This reached its logical, if unusual, conclusion before the opening of the Baku Games when it was announced that the Azerbaijani organisers would cover all travel and accommodation costs incurred by those athletes in attendance.

The idea of a European Games had been floated initially in 2009 by the Irish International Olympic Committee (IOC) member and EOC president, Patrick Hickey. Subsequently Deloitte were commissioned to produce a ‘feasibility study’ into any potential Games – although the supposedly public document is infuriatingly impossible to track down. No doubt it spoke in glowing terms about the benefits to European sport a regional event would bring, the increased cooperation between the representatives of various nation states, and the positive effect more sport would have on an increasingly unhealthy and obese Europe.

An educated guess would suggest that beneath this window dressing the report concluded a European Games would be an enormously profitable venture for the EOC and its constituent NOCs. Revenue from advertising and TV deals is a lucrative business, as anyone involved in Olympianism is only too well aware. As Baku approached so exclusive broadcast deals were signed with media groups across the continent, as well as China Central Television and the Arab States Broadcasting Union.

Capitalism and the Olympic Movement, both of which were born in Europe before spreading across the globe, have returned in tandem to create a new product in an old market.

5. “Fanatical Colonialist”
Regional Games, that is to say those mini-Olympic style events which encompass a continent or other geographical area, are nothing new. Until Baku, Europe was the only continent not to stage such a competition, although, for various political reasons, similar ideas had been mooted on a number of occasions throughout the 1960s.

This is a curious historical anomaly, almost certainly the result of the early Olympic Movement’s Eurocentrism. The Olympic Games were ‘renovated’ by the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. By the 1920s Coubertin and the International Olympic Committee – a veritable who’s who of European nobility – explored the idea of regional Games held under the auspices of the IOC. Over the course of the next 15 years Central American, Pan-American, Near East and Balkan Games were held. An African Games, scheduled for 1925, failed to get off the ground.

Contained within Coubertin’s Olympic ideology is a most definite imitation of the logic of imperialism, indeed Coubertin had at one point described himself as a “fanatical colonialist”. Having embarked upon his ‘civilizing mission’ with racist zeal, Coubertin proselytized on a global stage, espousing the moral value of his sporting systems.

Unlike other continents, Europe had no need for a Games; they were already in possession of the Olympics themselves.

6. “we all are soldiers of Azerbaijan and ready to serve at full strength for the future of our country”
I have written before about Robert K Barney and the ‘p’ triad: the promise of pride, publicity and profit that underpins a government’s desire to host a mega-event. While it is almost always the case that staging a mega-event results in a net loss for the host nation, it seems that Azerbaijan had approached the European Games knowing that there would be a negative financial return. They seemed content to use the Games as advert and loss-leader, in the hope that the outlay would be offset by a presumed increase in prestige on the national stage, as is clear from the words of Tale Haydarov, chair of the European Azerbaijan Society:
"“The fact that the first European Games were granted to Azerbaijan proves that the country is worthy to host them. During the past decade, the economic level and infrastructure of my country has developed considerably. We are now reaping the fruits of these developments."
The event also promised a spike in national pride, and Ilham Aliyev was quick to turn this feeling into political capital. At the end of the Games he waxed lyrical about the nation’s potential before thanking his wife Mehriban Aliveva, who had headed the organising committee:She did her utmost to hold the European Games at the highest level. While determining the composition of the Organizing Committee, I was sure that they would do the best. Because it covered experience and professionalism, mainly love to the state and people. In general, these are main terms of the success of our country,”

In turn, Mehriban Aliyeva took aim at the government’s political opponents – both domestic and international, one presumes – before engaging in the sort of military metaphor that would have had George Orwell reaching for his pen: “You have proved to the whole world once again that no black power can target or fear us… Mr. President, we all are soldiers of Azerbaijan and ready to serve at full strength for the future of our country.”

For Aliyev and Azerbaijan the Games came at a price. Officially Baku 2015 is said to have cost €1 billion, but the final figure may be as high as €6.5 billion once stadium construction and infrastructure improvements are factored in. And while the eyes of the world may be drawn by hosting an event of such a scale, they may not all look on approvingly.

7. "It would be irresponsible to pull together €57.5 million for the European Games in 2019,"
The European Games are set to become a quadrennial event, and are due to be staged next in 2019. Yet even before a starter’s gun had fired in Baku the future of the Games was sent into chaos. It had been announced in May that the Netherlands would host the second European Games but less than a month later they had withdrawn their interest.

Unsurprisingly money is behind the change of heart. The 2019 European Games came with a projected €125 million price-tag and the Dutch government were unwilling to meet the request of the organisers to fund nearly half of that sum through public money. "It would be irresponsible to pull together €57.5 million (£41.9 million/$61.5 million) for the European Games in 2019," a joint statement from the Government, the Provinces and Municipalities said. Despite the fact that the Netherlands were the only country to bid for the Games, the EOC is adamant that as many as seven nations are now prepared to host the event.

8. “Many of the requirements of the IOC do not harmonize with the Norwegian way of thinking and living”
If spiralling costs, uncertain economic terrain and the reluctance to divert resources in an age of austerity are concerns affecting what we might rather loosely term ‘mini-mega events’ such as the European Games, they are but a microcosm of the difficulties facing actual mega-events.

This can be most clearly seen with the bidding process for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Of the six original countries touted as contenders Lviv in Ukraine, Krakow in Poland and Stockholm in Sweden all pulled out, while a lack of popular support prevented bids from Germany and Switzerland. Once the IOC’s preferred choice, Olso, also dropped out because the Norwegian government were unwilling to bankroll the Games, only bids from China and Kazakhstan remained. Neither country can be said to have a spotless human rights record.

9. “If participation in sport is to be stopped every time the politicians violate the laws of humanity, there will never be any international contests.”
The government of Azerbaijan deserves criticism. But it is not alone. There are numerous examples of nation states with dubious human rights records hosting mega-events. The government of Brazil was rightly condemned before and during the last football World Cup; Israel was awarded the European Under-23 football championships despite their continued persecution and brutalisation of the Palestinians; the Sochi Winter Games took place against the horrific repression of Russia’s LGBTQ community. And Tony Blair was Prime Minister at the time the 2012 Olympics were awarded to London when he should have been in the International Criminal Court charged with war crimes. Perhaps Avery Brundage had a point when he said:
“The world, alas, is full of injustice, aggression, violence and warfare, against which all civilized persons rebel, but this is no reason to destroy the nucleus of international cooperation and good will we have in the Olympic Movement … If participation in sport is to be stopped every time the politicians violate the laws of humanity, there will never be any international contests.”
Yet Brundage’s words are an exercise in the abdication of responsibility, a justification for turning a blind-eye to that “injustice, aggression, violence and warfare”. Surely we cannot agree with Brundage, nor the Baku Games’ chief operating officer Simon Clegg when he says, “political questions need to be directed to the politicians”. No matter the lengths to which people go in order to deny the link between politics and sport, the two are irrevocably intertwined. Sport is shot through with considerations of class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, power and money, our participation is structured by political decisions, mega-events can only exist because of the planning, preparation and financial input of those who govern host countries. The likes of the IOC and FIFA are political actors.

It is baffling that governing bodies, operating at a time when mega-events are as much a brand as an event, still refuse to see the relationship between sport and politics. While politicians, governments, and nation states seek to bask in the reflected glory of a mega-event, it is equally true that the actions of a nation state can 
leave a stain on the mega-event itself.

10. “Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
The Olympic Charter proclaims that the Olympics should be realised “without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” History would suggest that this credo can be extremely malleable. How do those who govern world sport square that circle?

There is a belief amongst these people that sport, or more specifically sport in their hands, is an unequivocal force for good in this world, a mechanism for peace and understanding. Sport can, indeed must, absent itself from the moral questions of society, suspended in pure isolation, lest it too becomes debased. Fundamentally, sport is considered to transcend the political realm. Some will say that the ideology of Olympianism is merely a sham, a fig leaf to cover the lies and profiteering and corruption. I would not disagree. But those in power do seem, on some level, to truly believe their own rhetoric.

In part this is the corollary of the colonial ideology that so informed Coubertin in the first decades of the twentieth century. It has become the duty of the IOC or FIFA to reach out to countries such as Azerbaijan or Qatar, to welcome them into the Olympic Movement and the Football Family. In doing so they believe, quite genuinely, that they are helping to educate and elevate, inspire and instruct, and perhaps most arrogantly of all, that they are the solution rather than part of the problem.