June this year will see the opening of the inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. The Games are intended to be a European equivalent to the continental sporting events already held across Asia and the Americas, involving fifty countries from across Europe and almost six-thousand athletes.
While not quite an event of the same scale or prestige as the Olympics or Commonwealth Games, the European Games will feature some of Europe’s top athletes and provide a chance for athletes to gain points towards Olympic qualification.
While some may see the Europeans as a fantastic opportunity for athletes to represent their country and an ideal stage to promote pan-European sport, others have questioned quite what a European Games will add to the global sporting calendar and whether it can justify the inevitably massive amount of funding that will be required to support large national teams travelling to an international competition.
The question of the competitive and sporting value that the European Games holds recalls much of the controversy over the inclusion of certain sports into the Olympic program. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the travesty that Olympic football has become.
While it is hard to deny the value an Olympic gold medal holds, regardless of sport or discipline, it is difficult to reconcile the notion of the Olympics being the pinnacle of sporting excellence with the fact that Olympic football has become little more than a glorified exhibition match for players on the fringes of World Cup squads.
In essence, the same applies to a European Games. If it is not the pinnacle of a sport, which for the vast majority of the sports involved it is not, is it really worth staging? There is no shortage of alternative opportunities for Europe’s finest athletic talent to test their mettle against their peers.
While nobody would begrudge an athlete the chance to represent their country, nor seek to belittle the achievement of reaching the peak in one’s chosen sport, it seems bizarre to create an entirely new competition merely to provide another route for Olympic qualification and an opportunity for some mutual backslapping.
There is also the question of how much will be spent sending teams to the European Games and whether this represents a worthwhile investment. With funding a major issue for many sports’ governing bodies, both throughout the UK and across much of Europe, the notion of spending yet more scarce resources to send an inter-disciplinary team to Azerbaijan seems odd. British fans are left even more bemused when this is considered alongside the stated aims of the majority of UK sporting bodies – namely increasing participation, improving facilities for those participating at grassroots level and providing the opportunity for people to improve their health and wellbeing through sport. Essentially the debate comes down to two crucial questions. Firstly, if these European Games are not the pinnacle of the sport for those competing, then why stage such a grandiose event for a competition that is, in effect, little more than a qualifier for the Olympics?
Secondly, at a time when sports funding is in danger of falling below the level required to maintain the status quo let alone improve standards across the board, why are national governing bodies allocating funding to a second tier competition when grassroots sports participation is plummeting and in dire need of every last scrap of funding?
The European Olympic committee has some very awkward questions to answer, as do the national sporting bodies which have backed the European Games, and at this point it is difficult to see how they will answer them.
Photograph: Laura NGO