By Jacob Balzano
Rejoice! After years of enviously watching athletes in Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Americas flaunt their sporting might together as continental brothers and sisters, Europe finally has a competition to call its own. Live, from the fifth most censored country in the world, it’s the first ever European Games.
Jutting out into the glistening Caspian Sea, Baku, the oil boom capital of Azerbaijan, is fizzing and popping with European Games mania. Six thousand athletes from 50 countries have descended on the city to run, twist and grunt their way through two weeks of gruelling sporting competition. Stadia have sprouted like mushrooms, glassy hotels stretch into the clouds and phalanxes of volunteers marshal the masses of spectators, hacks and dignitaries into arenas to watch the games, some of which will qualify athletes for the Rio Olympics next year.
It is impressive to see Baku holding an event so flash, sophisticated and well-attended when one remembers that barely two decades ago the city was a dusty backwater still convulsing from the collapse of the Soviet Union and war with neighbouring Armenia. Yet even before the opening ceremony on June 12th, there were sinister signals that this event would not quite live up to the Olympic ideals. Officials from Amnesty International, which planned to hold a press conference in Baku during the games, to highlight the country’s political prisoners, were denied visas. As were delegates from Human Rights Watch. A British activist from Platform London was detained at Baku airport for over 30 hours before being promptly deported. Journalists from the BBC, the Guardian, Radio France International and German broadcaster ARD were also denied accreditation.
When this news broke, I attended a press conference where presidential adviser Ali Hasanov ruminated that this was an anti-Azerbaijani campaign directed by Western elements jealous of the country’s success. Another way of interpreting this is that government officials are not fond of media who have explored claims that they have in recent years siphoned off untold billions of state assets into their personal accounts, annihilated the free press and neutralised or imprisoned anyone who dared speak out against their behavior.
Even from a pragmatic perspective, denying entry to journalists from major media outlets was a careless move that completely backfired. The Azerbaijan government, far from muting issues it didn’t want discussed, managed to amplify them and attach intrigue and skulduggery to the European Games even before the event had officially started. In doing so, the government very helpfully exploded that old deceit that these showboat sport extravaganzas serve as some wondrous key for world peace, rather than the cynical orgy of unblinking power, geopolitics and capital that they unfailingly end up being.
In the Roman Empire, it was said all that was needed for a happy populace was bread and circuses. It has been speculated that Azerbaijan spent up to $10 billion on hosting the European Games. Bread, however, can be a luxury for some in a land where the average monthly salary is around $400 and significantly less outside the capital. The opening ceremony’s bill of $100 million seemed comparatively austere to the overall cost of the games. It was in fact a stunningly elaborate spectacle that blended 12th century Persian poetry, flying carpets, exploding pomegranates and … Lady Gaga. The latter’s attendance was a closely guarded secret until the last minute, when she appeared at a piano adorned with flowers to trill John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Depending on the cultural sensitivities of the country where this song is performed, singers sometimes omit the lyrics imaging there is no God. Until last week I have never heard a version which leaves out the line imagining “no need for greed or hunger.” Perhaps Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev had given some helpful artistic guidance beforehand?
As the spiritual home of BP, which hoovers up more than 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Azerbaijan, and that country’s largest foreign investor, Britain was expected to send an exciting guest to the opening ceremony. Prince William? Sting? Someone from Game of Thrones? Almost. Britain was valiantly represented by Tobias Ellwood MP, Parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Alas, my attempts to get an autograph were thwarted by the millions of screaming fans ahead of me. The Honourable Member’s Twitter feed duly cranked out some messages banging the drum for British business and support for athletes of “Team GB.” The next day Ellwood flew to Bahrain where #Reform and #HumanRights were on the agenda, talking points apparently absent from his Baku
The lack of any senior British representative was symptomatic of the rest of Europe’s energetic incuriosity about the event. The only European heads of state in attendance from farther West were Prince Albert of Monaco and the grand duke of Luxembourg. There were however, some more regal dignitaries from the local neighbourhood, namely President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov of Turkmenistan.
Even Erdogan would remark the following day, “I could not see any leaders from the EU, although the name of this event is ‘European Games,’ the Turkish leader sniffed. To which Putin (with whom he was holding talks), retorted with a mischievous grin, “As a European Union candidate country, you are representing the whole bloc.” At one point in the ceremony, for fans of Greek mythology, a performer representing the Phoenician woman Europa (for whom the continent was named) sailed across the stadium on top of a white bull suspended from the eaves, just to hammer home the message that this was a European thing.
Speaking of bull, Patrick Hickey, the president of the European Olympic Committees and chief architect of the European Games project (and former Irish judo champion), took to the stage to address the audience. Among the blizzard of platitudes, he spoke of how sport “has a unique power to affect positive change, to instil a set of values that make change inevitable” before dropping the buzzwords “global ethics, fair play, respect and friendship.”
Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162 out of 180 countries in its annual press freedom index. Transparency International ranks Azerbaijan 126 out of 175 on its global corruption index. Democracy was always a risky sport in Azerbaijan, but in the last year, the correlation between Azerbaijan’s growing global presence and the severe crackdown on journalists and human rights activists has been absolute. Those who have not been thrown in jail have either fled or have fallen silent to the extent that Baku now seems like a ghost town for civil society.
Before embarking to Azerbaijan, I met a human rights worker in a café in neighbouring Tbilisi, Georgia, who told me: “For the first time in a decade, I literally don’t know who to meet over there anymore.” The next day, an email landed in my inbox from a well-connected analyst: “I’m sorry, Andrew, but my Baku colleagues were simply too fearful to be in contact with you.”