Baku: Sports Capital of the World?

Azerbaijan appears to be on a roll for hosting international sports events, and, like any serious competitive athlete in the race for gold, it wants all the experience it can get.

So, once the European Games wrap up on June 28, Baku plans to host a few other mega-sports events, too: a Formula One race in 2016, and then the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017.

But that’s not all – it’s co-hosting the European soccer championship in 2020 and has set its sights on perhaps even the Summer Olympic Games in 2024.

Baku’s earlier Olympics bids failed, but the European Games left the city with some new, glittering sports infrastructure and the authorities are bent on making the most of it.

Azerbaijan’s big decision about going for the 2024 Olympics won’t come until September, however, and rests with President Ilham Aliyev, who also doubles as the chair of the Azerbaijani National Olympics Committee,
Sports Minister Azad Rahimov specified on June 26.

Rahimov, though, believes that the European Games have put Baku on the right road. Holding large-scale sports events puts Azerbaijan "on the road leading to the Olympics,” the minister said. 

Granted, it also depends on the International Olympics Committee’s eagerness to makes some concessions for Azerbaijan, aside from other matters. Baku’s sports venues and infrastructure do not meet current capacity standards, which Azerbaijani sports authorities claim are too stringent and economically unviable.

The country faces stiff competition, though, from Boston, Paris, Rome and Hamburg.

Soccer might give Azerbaijan a leg up, if it decides to go for the Olympics. Union of European Football Associations  has decided it would be “romantic” to celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2020 by having 13 countries, including Azerbaijan, host matches. 

Azerbaijan may not have a sterling soccer record, but it boasts a 68,000-seat new stadium ready for Euro 2020 and a state-run energy company, SOCAR, ready to pick up the tab. SOCAR is already among the sponsors of the 2016 championship.

But before that, Formula One is coming to town. Azerbaijani officials promise racers a scenic course along the Caspian Sea coastline and (somehow) inside Baku’s historic old town.

But many residents and visitors to Baku may argue that car races are actually a daily fare in the city. Car accidents, mostly caused by speeding, killed almost 3,000 people in 2013, according to government sources.

This year, during the European Games, a bus ploughed into three Austrian synchronized swimmers, and 10 days later a British contractor for the Games died and two were injured in a traffic collision.  

These accidents, but more than that the Azerbaijani government’s dismal human-rights record, have sparked questions about whether international sports tournaments should go to Baku. So far, though, Baku has been able to override many such concerns with lavish spending.  No reason to expect change now.

Baku: Sports Capital of the World?

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