Baku stages greatest show but what will legacy of European Games be?

By bne IntelliNews June 15, 2015

Carmen Valache in Baku -


The organisers of the inaugural European Games had long promised that the opening ceremony on June 12 would be “the greatest show ever staged in Azerbaijan” – and they made good on their promise. The ceremony was a feast of colour, glitter, lights, fireworks, Azerbaijani culture and sportsmanship. A 12-act show woven together by smooth transitions punctuated by abrupt appearances for the wow factor, the ceremony kept the audience on its toes for almost three hours. Whether the legacy of the show will last much past the end of the Games on June 28 remains a matter of conjecture.

To the delight of the Azerbaijani audience, the event started and finished with traditional Mugham music and dance. A famous singer in Azerbaijan, Alim Qasimov, rocked the stadium and set off the first of several fireworks shows. His act was followed by the delivery of the Olympic flame, which had travelled throughout the country for the last six weeks, and by that of another national symbol, the poet Nizami. The ceremony also featured a giant pomegranate that opened up to let its seeds float all over the stadium; a parade of the 50 national teams participating in the event; speeches by Azerbaijan's first lady Mehriban Aliyeva, and by the president of the European Olympic committee Patrick Hickey;  a giant cauldron that was set on fire; and a mythological act with Europa riding the bull Zeus, which might not have resonated with the local audience, but was a wink at Greece from the Greek artistic design team that had planned the ceremony.

Halfway through the ceremony, there was a surprise appearance by Lady Gaga, whose piano-accompanied rendition of John Lennon's “Imagine” had the audience clapping and singing along. Throughout the entire ceremony, the audience was visibly moved and involved; they got up to sing the national anthem, made waves when they were asked to, cheered for the parade of athletes, particularly for the Turkish and Azerbaijani teams, and turned on the flashlight option on their smartphones when messages on giant screens encouraged them to do so. They were vocally supportive of all the acts, except for representatives of the Armenian sports delegation, who were booed when they appeared on stage in what was the low point of the event.

Agent of change?

As befits such a ceremony, the two speeches were brief and congratulatory. Both Aliyeva and Hickey thanked the organisers, audience and athletes, and shared their belief that the Games would mark a new era in the country's history and in that of European sport. Hickey did not address the mounting criticism of Azerbaijan's human rights record, but did posit that sport was an agent of change, as “sport has a unique power to cause positive change, and to instil values that bring about that change”. 

Whether or not Azerbaijan will see positive change in the longer term remains to be seen. Economic growth in the first quarter, 6.5% for the non-oil sectors, was indeed higher than expected, thanks in part to increased public spending in preparation for the Games. But public spending over the last two quarters of the year will most likely drop, which will be reflected in the economic performance. Reports of unpaid government contracts in the first half of 2015 for areas that are not related to the Games abound, and so do rumours of pay cuts for some government employees. bne IntelliNews was unable to verify these reports. Besides, the full impact of the 33% devaluation of the Azerbaijani currency in February has yet to be felt, as companies have reportedly postponed layoffs until after the Games and consumer prices were kept in check by strict government control.

If recent sporting events like the World Cups in South Africa and Brazil and the Olympics in London are anything to go by, the returns on investment of organising such large-scale competitions are disappointing. Most venues built for these purposes tend to be underused after the events, and become burdens on state budgets due to high maintenance costs. In Azerbaijan's case, the fact that it will be hosting the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017 means that there will be other opportunities for the country to use these sporting venues in the coming years, but that will hardly be enough to recover the initial investment. The BBC reported that the official cost of the game stands at $1.2bn, but the real figure could be much higher; the Olympic Stadium alone cost more than $600mn. Azerbaijan's country's sports minister said the opening ceremony cost over $95mn – more than twice that of London's $42mn, four-hour opener for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The cost of staging such an event was deemed too high for the much wealthier Netherlands, which pulled out of its initial bid to host the 2019 edition two days before the Baku 2015 opening ceremony. Unlike Azerbaijan, the Netherlands made public an estimate of the price tag for staging the event, €57.5mn, but decided to withdraw its bid because of insufficient support from local, provincial and national authorities.

Hotel Baku

In addition to sporting venues and infrastructure projects, Azerbaijan has also invested heavily in its hospitality sector. In Baku alone, three new five-star hotels opened in recent months, and three more are underway. The capital has invested in an extensive network of luxury accommodation aimed at supporting the development of business travel, but for now the average occupancy rate for these venues remains under 50%, so their future will be determined by the extent to which Azerbaijan manages to attract luxury leisure and business tourism in the future. The Formula 1 race planned for 2016 is a start, but more such initiatives are needed to ensure a steady flow of foreign tourism.

Economic considerations are not the only incentive to host such events. The European Games are a clear attempt to bring the people of Azerbaijan together and to foster a sense of national pride. However, to the organisers' frustration human rights groups from around the world have used the opportunity to draw attention to issues like corruption and the limits on freedom of speech in the country. A seemingly un-phased Azerbaijani administration responded by further cracking down on dissent and by accusing critics of smear campaigns, of disparaging its efforts and of politicising a sporting event. In early June, even the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) fell victim to this drive, when it announced that its Baku office would be closed within a month.

It will take at least another three months to see if Hickey's predictions about sport and change are right, and if the European Games will leave a lasting legacy on Azerbaijan or European sport as a whole. But for now, Azerbaijan is busy cheering for its athletes, who have won the greatest number of medals in the first three days of the competition. After all, nothing brings out national pride like sporting glory.


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