Pop diva Lady Gaga’s rendition of ‘Imagine’ at the European Games opening ceremony lit the touchpaper that put human rights issues on the backburner and ushered in a dream fortnight for both controversial hosts Azerbaijan and Pat Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committees.
Major concerns over the rights record of President Ilham Aliyev’s government, with Hickey targeted for allowing the Games to be held there, and belief the inaugural Games themselves would be a collector’s item bedevilled the lead-up.
The Games — labelled by one newspaper as ‘The Games of Shame’ — end, however, with arguably Azerbaijan having successfully presented a far more positive image to the world, albeit at a cost of several billion dollars, and the European Games brand assured as six cities are vying for the 2019 edition.
On the sporting front the three Olympic divas of Jade Jones in taekwondo, and boxing duo Nicola Adams and Katie Taylor added European Games gold to their London triumphs.
The absence of the track and field and swimming stars also allowed others to gain a deserved place in the spotlight and they delighted in it.
British starlet Amber Hill, a self-assured 17-year-old skeet markswoman, unemployed 43-year-old Cuban defector Ivan Trevejo, who won fencing gold for France 19 years after he took Olympic silver in Atlanta, and super heavyweight boxing champion Joe Joyce, who lives with his blind mum and has a fine arts degree, were just some who shone.
Azerbaijan gave a good account of themselves and had Aliyev and his 20 strong motorcade — bringing the rest of the traffic to an obedient standstill — speeding from venue to venue so he could present the medals.
The success of the Games, though, is not going to propel them impetuously into launching a third bid for Baku to host the Olympics — they failed to make the short list on the previous two occasions.
“Any country or city that bids for the Olympics comes after a thorough review,” said Azerbaijani Sports Minister Azad Rahimov.
“The city is ready for the Olympics. The deadline (for the 2024 Olympics) is September 15 so we still have a certain amount of time to decide.
“We have to look at how much infrastructure we need to build.
“We will do deep research on how many sports complexes we have to construct. I think we’ll have enough time for consultancy process.
“We will submit a detailed report to the government as to whether to bid or not,” added Rahimov, who revealed all the sports venues from the Games will be available to the public and free of charge.
For Hickey, whose 70th birthday arrived during the Games, the Azerbaijanis delivered big time and allowed his brainchild to gain currency, so much so that apart from the four already in the running for 2019 two cities approached him during the event to declare an interest in hosting it.
The Irishman also has the crucial support of International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach.
“He (Bach) believes in these continental Games for two reasons: each city who hosts these Games is a potential candidate for the Olympics,” Hickey told AFP.
“The other reason is that these Games can act as qualifiers for the Olympics.
“If you take judo, an athlete has to travel the world at great expense to gain points towards qualifying for the Olympics when it would be simpler and cheaper for them to do that at one Games.”
Hickey even got his wish to present Taylor with her gold medal after earning a hug from Aliyev up in the stands.
“I’ve known Pat (Hickey) for years now it’s great to have an Irishman so high up and put that medal round your neck,” said Taylor.