The Big Read

Azerbaijan's ambitions flying high as first European Games gain traction and direction

By Mike Rowbottom

Mike Rowbottom ©ITGThe pole bearing the Azerbaijan flag, set at the shoreline of a city known as the Pearl of the Caspian, is a testament to a young nation's high ambition. When it was constructed, this pole - at 162 metres - was the tallest in the world (a distinction now claimed by neighbouring Tajhikistan which duly installed a version that is three metres higher). Its flag is the size of a football pitch.

This expansive symbol of a country which celebrated 23 years of independence from the Soviet Union yesterday (October 18) stands just along the seafront from a huge construction site that, come June next year, will host key elements of the inaugural European Games.

Since committing Baku as host of that new venture in December 2012, President Ilham Aliyev and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva, chair of the Baku 2015 Operation Committees, have overseen a drive to do in 30 months what host cities normally require seven years to complete.

Fifty years on from the 1964 Olympics, Tokyo recalls the buzz of it all - and begins to anticipate another for the Games of 2020

By Mike Rowbottom

Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegamesThere was a palpable sense of excitement and energy within the chandeliered halls and corridors of the Palace Hotel in Tokyo on Friday (October 10). Stern, watchful men in dark suits, heeding instructions arriving via electronic earpieces, testified to the fact that some very important people had gathered for a unique moment of celebration within Japanese sport, as the nation both reflected upon the 50th anniversary of the Tokyo 1964 Games, and outlined its aspirations for the Olympics which the city will host again in 2020.

One of several exhibitions in the city of memorabilia from those first Asian Olympic Games is located just inside the entrance to the Marunouchimoru building near to the gardens of the Imperial Palace. Among items including a red Japanese team blazer, a panelled leather football, the kind of lighter one used to require to start gas cookers (just in case the torch required some persuasion on its journey, presumably) and banks of fading programmes, one of the prize exhibits is a replica of the cauldron that held the Olympic flame during that fortnight of competition in October 1964.

The death a month before these Anniversary celebrations of Yoshinori Sakai, who lit that Olympic cauldron on October 10, robbed this occasion of a guest of honour. His passing was widely mourned in Japan.

Standing the test of time - Sportel 25 editions on

By David Owen

David Owen ©insidethegames.bizIn 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa and Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Cold War over, Germany was reunited. Mobile phones were just starting to get smaller and become more widespread, but the World Wide Web, as a paradigm-shifting, transformational force, was still a few years away. Satellite television company Sky and rival BSB agreed to merge as BSkyB; it was another two years before the breakaway English Premier League was formed and Sky signed its landmark £304 million ($485 million/€388 million) deal for live coverage.

Nineteen Ninety was also the year when 64 participants, including Juan Antonio Samaranch, the late former International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, and 82 companies from 19 countries assembled in Monaco for the very first Sportel conference.

It all seems like so long ago. That inaugural event was attended by two athletes celebrated then, but whom most of us today would struggle to place. Jean-Charles Trouabal and Bruno Marie-Rose were half of the French 4x100 metres relay squad who had recently broken the world record - a feat achieved in Split, which, in another sign of the times, was then still in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee, sets out three key challenges for next 25 years

By Mike Rowbottom

Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegamesBefore being elected for a fourth and final term as President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) - which celebrated its silver anniversary last Monday (September 22) - Sir Philip Craven faced an initially surprising challenge in the form of fellow Briton Alan Dickson, who was nominated by the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association (CPISRA).

Speaking to insidethegames shortly before the vote in Athens on November 24 last year, Sir Philip commented: "I have a rival. The surprise is no longer there. That's fine. There will be a fight, and as a fairly tough ex-wheelchair basketball player I am more than ready for that."

Sir Philip, now 64, won that particular fight hands down by 127 votes to 20.  This native of Bolton, Lancashire had demonstrated his "fairly tough" qualities very clearly at the age of 16 when he overcame the trauma of losing the use of his legs after a rock climbing accident.

Cycling is now leading sport in anti-doping, says UCI President Cookson

By Mike Rowbottom

Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegamesNearly a year on from replacing Pat McQuaid as President of the International Cycling Union (UCI), Brian Cookson maintains that, under his guidance, cycling is now "the leading sport in terms of anti-doping".

The Briton's appointment - by a vote of 24-18 in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence on September 27 - brought an end to the controversial eight-year reign of his 65-year-old opponent, a period that was scarred by doping scandals, most notably involving American seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, and by allegations of corruption.

Will Scotland say "Yes" to end era of British Olympic sport as we know it?

Philip BarkerIn 2012, "Flower of Scotland" rang around the Olympic Stadium as a children's choir performed traditional music from all four nations of the United Kingdom at London's Olympic Opening Ceremony.

When Team GB entered later, the flag was proudly carried by four-time Olympian Sir Chris Hoy. Already the most successful Scot, victory in men's keirin and team sprint gave him an unprecedented six gold medals in a stellar career, the most bemedalled British Olympian of all time. Now a special locker at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow contains his cycling kit. It is of course, painted gold.

Sir Chris was not the only Scot to shine in 2012. Rower Heather Stanning was born in Yeovil but grew up in Lossiemouth. She attended Gordonstoun school before joining the army and won Britain's first gold medal of the Games in the pairs with Helen Glover. Later in the week, Glaswegian Katherine Grainger partnered Anna Watkins to an emotional victory in the double sculls. Grainger's Olympic career began a dozen years before. She won three silver medals and then at last came gold. "I'm prepared to go around the country until people are sick of the sight of me and my gold medal," she said.

President Graça gets rocket science right as FIVB uses Volleyball World Championship in Poland as "launch pad" for Rio 2016

By Mike Rowbottom

Mike Rowbottom at the Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw ahead of the Opening Ceremony for the World Volleyball Championships ©insidethegamesThe Volleyball Men's World Championship currently underway in Poland has been described by Ary Graça, President of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) as a "launchpad" for the sport towards the Rio 2016 Olympics. On that reckoning, the flight of the good ship volleyball appears to be straight and true to the heart of Brazil - which probably appreciates the sport as much as any other country in the world.

There was an element of fantasy attached as Graça took up his current position in September 2012 - the FIVB Congress at which the vote took place was held at Anaheim's Disneyland Hotel. Needing a 50 per cent plus one majority, the then 69-year-old Brazilian recorded 103 out of the 204 eligible votes to become the fourth President in the Federation's history following Paul Libaud of France (1947-1984), Rubén Acosta of Mexico (1984-2008) and Jizhong Wei of China (2008-2012).

Since that triumphant moment in the United States, Graça - a former player who has most recently served as President of the Brazil Volleyball Federation - has attempted to revolutionise the sport after what he sees as a long period in which it has pursued some misguided strategies.

The FIBA Basketball World Cup - new brand, new beginning

Paul OsborneThere are few World Championships in the world bigger than that of basketball's. In fact, there may be only one - the FIFA World Cup. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) wants to change that, however.

Since its debut in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1950, following the growing success of basketball at the Olympic Games, FIBA has been looking at ways to expand, improve and cement the Championships as a major player on the international sporting calendar.

From its initial growing pains through teams' unwillingness to participate, to its eventual expansion into the realms of professional stars and its current 24 team format, the Championships have created a global brand throughout the world of basketball.

The story of Rosemary Mula - the most dedicated volunteer in the world

Brian Oliver head and shoulders ©Brian OliverThe gold and silver medallists in the triple jump at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne both left their mark, in their own way, in sporting history.

In the second round there was a huge shock when Vilhjálmur Einarsson broke the Olympic record with a leap of 16.26 metres. His lead lasted only two rounds but Einarsson, in finishing second, became Iceland's first medallist and was thereafter known as "the silver man". He was so popular for his achievement that he was five times voted Iceland's sportsperson of the year. He later became a headmaster and a talented landscape artist.

The Brazilian who beat him, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, had artistic tendencies too. In 1959 he played the role of Death in the film Orfeu Negro, which took an ancient Greek legend and set it in a twentieth-century favela. Orfeu Negro won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the Oscar for best foreign-language film.
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