Baku, Azerbaijan, Nov. 18
Famous European SportBusiness International magazine has published an article about Azerbaijan's successes in the sphere of sport and the country's preparation for the first ever European Games, which will be held in Baku in 2015.
"In June 2015, Azerbaijan will take the most significant step to date in its bid to become a heavyweight sporting nation when the inaugural edition of the European Games arrives in its capital Baku," the magazine said.
Azerbaijan's Minister for Youth and Sport, Azad Rahimov, explained how the event will transform sport across the country, SportBusiness International said.
Azeri capital Baku's hosting of the European Games, the multi-sport event that will run every four years under the auspices of the European Olympic Committees (EOC), is an important endorsement for Azerbaijan given its conspicuous intention to host The Greatest Show on Earth one day, the publication wrote.
Baku launched bids to host both the 2016 and 2020 summer Olympic Games, but failed to reach candidate city status on both occasions before Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo, respectively, secured the backing of the International Olympic Committee, the article said.
However, Baku won favour from the EOC in resounding fashion at the organisation's general assembly in Rome on December 8 last year, claiming 84 per cent of the vote to host the 2015 European Games, the article underscored.
The final list of sports might expand, but as things stand, around 5,500 athletes will descend on Baku to compete across 18 sports, and the majority of the event's host venues have already been established.
The magazine wrote that, as work continues on the athletes' village, the showpiece 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium, National Gymnastics Arena, Baku Aquatics Centre and Baku Shooting Centre - Azerbaijan's minister for youth and sport, Azad Rahimov, believes his nation is ideally placed to capitalise on a pivotal moment that could do much to shape its sporting destiny.
"The European Games will be a big opportunity for our country in terms of presenting the country's hospitality, professional attitude and responsibility to host major events," Rahimov said. "The EOC will closely evaluate Azerbaijan's preparations for the event".
Azerbaijani minister said these Games will be held for the first time ever. "Obviously, we realise the responsibility and difficulty of this. However, it does not negatively affect the potential for us to do the job properly," the minister said.
According to Rahimov, thirty-eight countries out of 48 voted for Azerbaijan to host the European Games, and the event will clarify the reality of successful sporting activity in Azerbaijan. "We will have state-of-the-art sports facilities, not least the 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium, which will be finished in time to host the opening and closing ceremonies," the minister noted.
"These Games will create a big interest in the culture of Azerbaijan for foreigners," Rahimov added.
While the European Games should act as a showcase for Azerbaijan, and the new Olympic Stadium will serve as a hub for the growing a: petite for sport in the country, Rahimov is already enthused by the development of sport in the country over recent years, the publication wrote.
Among a population of nine million people, youth participation in sport has soared thanks to the support of a burgeoning infrastructure over the past decade. Baku's new venues for swimming and gymnastics stand as the latest, shimmering examples of this, but Rahimov is keen to point out that the enhancement of Azerbaijan's sporting facilities stretches beyond its capital, the article said.
At present there are 40 Olympic-standard sport centres in Azerbaijan, the minister said.
"The construction of the Olympic sport complexes covers all regions in Azerbaijan. Over the past decade, 35 Olympic sports centres have been built," Rahimov added.
According to him, the main purpose of this strategy is to inspire the young generation towards sporting activity.
"These centres help them spend their free time on sporting activity. The Azeri population is over nine million, and 31 per cent of the population is young. A healthy, strong, clever youth is the power of any country," Rahimov noted.
Moreover, opening these complexes creates a big opportunity for the country to hold international competitions - not only in the capital but in the regions as well, the minister said. Sports venues are being built in villages and small towns too.
"Several vital things have to be done for Azerbaijan to be ready for the European Games. Currently, a gymnastics complex is being constructed in Baku. This will allow various international sport competitions to be held there," Rahimov said.
The minister noted that, at the same time, the Republic Sport Centre is also being constructed in the capital, which will provide athletes with all medical services, while work on the Baku Aquatics Centre in the city is also under way.
Although there is a strong focus on the hosting of the European Games, Rahimov said his responsibility is to build sport in the country - and that project will extend much further than 2015.
Chess remains an incredibly popular national past-time that the government believes can teach youngsters a number of skills, while the national football team's Tofig Bakhramov Stadium has also undergone a renovation amid the prospect of a joint bid to host games during UEFA Euro 2020, the magazine said.
"One of the most important achievements of last year was the reconstruction of the largest sport arena of the country - Republican Stadium, named after Tofig Bakhramov [the famous linesman who awarded England a controversial goal against West Germany in the final of the 1966 FIFA World Cup]," Rahimov said, adding that sport in Azerbaijan has been boosted by sustained infrastructural investment from the top level of government.
"In recent years we have paid special attention to the construction of swimming pools and chess schools. This means there is an increasing level of sporting activities available to all athletes," Rahimov said. "These projects create a broad picture of sports interest and participation throughout the country".
According to the minister, Azerbaijan has never been so powerful and successful as it is now in the sporting arena.
"Thanks to a decree of Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, 2012 was declared 'The Year of Sport'. At present Azerbaijan is known as one of the strongest and most successful centres of sport in the region. The attention and care of Mr Aliyev towards sport and the sportsmen and women of Azerbaijan amplify the interest in this area day by day," Rahimov said.
The publication said that the European Games is just one major international event on Azerbaijan's schedule, with the 2015 Chess World Cup and 2016 Chess Olympiad coming before the fourth edition of the Islamic Solidarity Games takes place in 2017.
In logistical terms, the largest event to come to the Azerbaijan to date is the FIFA Under-17 Women's World Cup in 2012, a year after International Boxing Association (AIBA) hosted its World Championships in Baku at the Heydar Aliyev Sports and Exhibition Complex - previously the venue for the 2005 and 2009 Rhythmic Gymnastics European Championships, the magazine said.
Azeri boxers Magomedrasul Majidov and Teymur Mammadov won gold and silver medals in the super-heavyweight and heavyweight categories, respectively, to delight the home crowd in 2011 before both went on to claim bronze medals at the 2012 London Olympic Games, the publication wrote.
The SportBusiness International wrote, indeed, London 2012 continued Azerbaijan's rise in terms of global sporting performance since its debut at the Olympics in Atlanta 17 years ago.
"The improving success of Azeri athletes at the Olympic Games presents a clear picture of growing interest and attention towards sport in our country," Rahimov said. "In Beijing, Azerbaijan had 44 representatives in 11 sports; in London we were represented by 53 competitors across 16 sports."
Our Olympians won two gold, two silver and six bronze medals - a total of 10 medals in 2012 - is a record result in the history of Azeri sport, the minister said.
The article said the performances of Azeri athletes at the third edition of the Islamic Solidarity Games in Indonesia earlier this year have also given Rahimov confidence that the Azeri medal haul can gather momentum at all major events over the coming years.
"One thing to note is that at the third Islamic Solidarity Games, Azerbaijan came seventh out of 46 countries," Rahimov said. "Our athletes won a total of 24 medals. There were six gold, nine silver and nine bronze medals."
A picture of improving sporting fortunes both inside and outside the competition arena forms a key part of Rahimov and Azerbaijan retaining their Olympic ambitions, the publication said.
Like others in sports administration in the country, Rahimov does not view Baku's unsuccessful bids for the 2016 and 2020 summer Olympics as failures. The next available summer Olympics will take place in 2024, and many expect Azerbaijan to submit Baku as an applicant city once again. And it is no secret that securing the Games remains the top target of a country bursting with sporting ambition.
"Disappointment in our Olympic bids doesn't negatively affect our efforts for our next bid," the minister said. "I believe that the experience obtained during this period will create new opportunities for the next stage of our candidacy".
Moreover, it was a big chance to present Azerbaijan to other countries, and developing the economy of the country as well as improvement in sports area creates a big opportunity for the future, Rahimov added.
"Meanwhile, any experience obtained during the previous bids inspires us to promote Azerbaijan for the 2024 Olympic Games," the minister said.
According to the publication, the Olympic Games have often been used as a barometer for measuring a country's sporting prowess.
However, for Azerbaijan, the pursuit of medals every four years arguably represents greater significance than most of the members of the Olympic Movement.
Azerbaijan only made its debut as an independent nation at the Games in Atlanta in 1996, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For a country that still has fresh memories of a time, not too long ago, when its name was not represented at the biggest sporting event in the world, its role in the Olympic Movement is cherished, the publication said.
Sport is undoubtedly seen as a natural source of national pride in Azerbaijan, and the results at every Games since 1996 have illustrated the country's improving performances, particularly in wrestling, where 14 of the nation's 26 Olympic medals have been won so far.
The publication said that, at the 2012 London Games, Azerbaijan picked up 10 medals in total, including two gold and two silver medals, to claim 30th place in the medal table - by far the country's best ever performance at the Olympics.
The challenge for the next edition of the Games in Rio de Janeiro is obvious, the vice-president of Azerbaijan's national Olympic committee, Professor Chingiz Huseynzade said.
"Our plan for Rio will be to aim higher, and we are planning to earn at least 11 medals," Huseynzade told SportBusiness International.
"Whereas in London we won medals mainly in wrestling, boxing and weightlifting, in Rio we would like to expand the number of the sports in which we can win new medals. We will do our best to gain medals in judo, rowing and canoeing, gymnastics, shooting and others," Huseynzade said.
"As the number of sporting achievements increases, the popularity of sport in Azerbaijan will also increase," Huseynzade said.
The next major test for Azerbaijani athletes will take place a year before the Rio Olympics, though, when the country's capital city, Baku, stages the inaugural European Games.
Although the list of sports for the European Games is likely to change before the event, around 5,500 athletes from across the continent will compete across a number of Olympic and non-Olympic sports, the magazine said.
"There has never been any discrimination or distinction between the Olympic and non-Olympic sports in our society. All sports are of the same importance for us," Huseynzade said. "For the European Games we will try to demonstrate our best in terms of results as the host country, but as this is the first edition of the Games, it is difficult to estimate the number of medals".
"I place a high value on the role of Azerbaijan in the Olympic Movement. Azerbaijan has been a part of the Olympics for the past 17 years...most of the sports on the Olympic Games programme have developed sufficiently in Azerbaijan, but I think that organising the European Games in Baku will enable further development of sports like triathlon, which is still new to Azerbaijan," Huseynzade said. "Hosting the first European Games in Azerbaijan in 2015 is a huge responsibility for us, and it indicates the extensive development of the Olympic Movement in Azerbaijan and its recognition by the international Olympic Movement".
"In my opinion, the selection of Azerbaijan as host of the first European Games is a great success in itself for our country." Huseynzade added. "The European sports family has placed a great trust in us".
In consecutive bids for the summer Olympics, for 2016 and 2020, Baku's hopes were crushed when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finalised the shortlist of candidate cities, the publication said.
However Huseynzade, who is also president of the Azerbaijan Athletics Federation and vice-president of the Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation, has insisted that such disappointments have not led to the country deviating from its long-term plan of landing the biggest sporting spectacle in the world.
"I don't consider the previous bids unsuccessful," he said. "They were a big experience for us. Our active participation in those bidding processes helped us become a host country of the first European Games."
The major lesson the country learned from the bids to host the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games in Azerbaijan was the confidence in the ability to be a major event host, Huseynzade underlined.
"The suggestions we submitted for both applications, and the observations and evaluations of leading experts from the Olympic Movement and national Olympic committees, in addition to the appraisal of the IOC and the world's other leading sports organisations, prove that we are on the right track," he added.
If the European Games in 2015 are viewed as a success, a bid for the 2024 Olympics would appear to be inevitable, although Huseynzade claims it is "too early" to confirm whether or not Baku will go for a third consecutive tilt, the publication said.
"If we are successful, and if the Azeri citizens are satisfied with the results of the Games and are willing to have the Olympic Games held in Baku, then we will surely participate for the adding process for the 2024 Games," Huseynzade said.
The European Games will therefore not only represent a major test for Azerbaijan's athletes, but it is also hoped that the event will prove the country's credentials as a major event host in a number of areas, the publication said.
"The sporting infrastructure will improve in Azerbaijan," Huseynzade said. "It will be possible to host international competitions in any sport. As a result of the Games, the experience of Azerbaijan in hosting international-level competitions will increase. Moreover, it will enable the development of areas such as security, healthcare and the environment, and it will establish a heritage for future generations," Huseynzade underlined.
The development of sporting facilities is viewed as a crucial driver for the development of sport in Azerbaijan, and the Baku Olympic Stadium is one of the most eye-catching construction projects, the article read.
The venue, which is being built by Turkish company Tefken Construction, is scheduled to open in February 2015, five months before it becomes the centrepiece of the European Games. The stadium will eventually hold up to 68,000 spectators, and Huseynzade believes the capacity will be sufficient for the next stage of sporting development in a country that has a population of nine million, SportBusiness International wrote.
"Taking into consideration that the previous stadium for 40,000 spectators did not have enough capacity to hold all of the people who wanted to watch football games and Olympic competitions, we believe that the new stadium will be full of spectators for any sporting event," Huseynzade said, adding that the development of the Olympic Stadium, and widespread improvements to sporting facilities across the country "will help Azerbaijan support the current and future generations of ambitious youngsters who have grown up in a nation that prioritises sport."
"Renovation of sports facilities and the construction and commissioning of new ones in our country has increased the efforts and skills of our athletes. Our objective is not only to develop great sport [in terms of] records," he added.
"Our major objective is to make sports more popular in order to promote healthy lifestyles, teach them good sportsmanship, and foster a healthy generation. Sport is an integral part of our society. For the purpose of developing sport, Olympic complexes have been constructed and commissioned in all of Azerbaijan's regions. At present, there are about 40 complexes," Huseynzade said.
According to the publication, with the country's economy underpinned by considerable oil reserves and GDP rocketing in recent years, Azerbaijan has the resources to give its sporting aspirations the best possible chance of being fulfilled.
In terms of long-term ambitions, Huseynzade believes that, thanks to the government's efforts to make sport a societal lynchpin, Azerbaijan can become one of international sport's major players in the coming decade.
"All of the projects will ensure further development of sport in Azerbaijan over the next 10 years," he added.
Azerbaijan's sporting victories are based on a well-weighted government policy and on the correct organisation of training and coaching development, Huseynzade said.
"I would like to see Azerbaijan among the top 10 in Europe and the top 20 in the world at the Olympic and European Games in 10 years' time. I believe that this is a very reasonable desire in view of the current development rate of sport in Azerbaijan," he underscored.
It is enough to take a look at the lengths the country went in its preparation to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest.
The pan-European karaoke-fest was held in Baku's Crystal Hall last year. And when Azeri double act Ell & Nikki won the contest in 2011, 15,000 commemorative stamps were issued off the back of the victory, the publication noted.
So when the EOC was assessing potential host cities for its inaugural European Games in 2015, Baku's commitment to all things European helped it get the nod, the article underscored.
"We clicked with Azerbaijan as they wanted to prove itself as a European city," Patrick Hickey, president of the EOC told SportBusiness International.
"After the disappointment of Baku missing out on hosting the 2020 Olympic Games, I suggested to them that while the Olympics may be too big for them at the moment, the European Games could be an ideal stepping stone to prove they can host major events. I have to be honest and say the economic situation also came into play. When we started talking about this new event six or seven years ago, Europe was a very different place. Now, in terms of wealth, we have become the sick man of the world. So in Baku we had an ideal candidate," Hickey said.
Hickey said he has "absolutely no worries" about Baku's sporting infrastructure, and revealed the local organising committee has recruited directors who worked on the 2012 Olympic Games in London to cover any shortfall in event management expertise in the country.
"One legacy London 2012 will leave is by training up a whole generation of Azeris to become the country's next event managers," Hickey added.
With the country straddling Asia and Europe, was Hickey ever concerned about the European Games losing any continental identity through the crossroads of cultures where it will take place, the article read.
"However, we also see this as an area of untapped potential and you only have to see how young the population is in Baku to realise this will be a great place to launch. For the inaugural Games, Baku is the perfect match," he noted.
At an estimated cost of $100 billion, the Khazar Islands, 41 artificial land masses covering 3,000 hectares 25-kilometres south of Baku, are a sign of Azerbaijan's desire to turn the country into one of the most modern in the world, the SportBusiness International wrote.
According to the article, the 41 islands in the Caspian Sea will be connected by 150 bridges, and will be both a commercial and residential hub, providing accommodation for one million residents and boasting over 50 hospitals, 150 schools and a Formula One racetrack.
The Azerbaijan Tower will be its centrepiece, standing at 1,050-metres high, and upon completion will become the tallest building in the world, the publication underlined.
The magazine noted that the businessman Ibrahim Ibrahimov, head of Avesta, the real estate developer behind the Khazar Islands, said that American, Turkish, Arab and Chinese investors are all interested in the project. Island-building is scheduled for completion in 2022, with plans to finish the Azerbaijan Tower in 2019, breaking ground only in 2015.