Mike Rowbottom
Mike Rowbottom ©ITGMany years ago, on Cambridge market, I bought an old LP - it was old even then - by a US comic/singer named Martin Mull. The tunes remain in my head - sorry anyone if you wonder why I don't seem to be paying full attention - and the one which sticks most firmly includes the lyrics: "So I button my lip, and they all think I'm hip, I used to plastic, but now I'm elastic I'm flexible..."

Sitting as I am on the eighth floor of the Baku Hilton, overlooking Freedom Square, in which the monumental presence of Vladimir Lenin no longer broods, I am reminded of the virtues of flexibility.

Azerbaijan, which replaced not only the statue but the name, Lenin Square, in the wake of its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has prospered on a grand scale in the intervening years.

It is a capital city of opulence, rich and dynamic as the thrusting citadels of Doha and Dubai, but scaled on a civilised and elegant proportion and accommodating a rich and lovingly preserved historic centre.

The prosperity stems from the rich natural resources of oil and gas which literally flame out of this transcontinental republic beside the Caspian Sea, long known as the "Land of Fire".

The national flag flies over Baku, host to this summer's inaugural European Games ©Getty ImagesThe national flag flies over Baku, host to this summer's inaugural European Games
©Getty Images

In past ages, the gas which burns continuously out of the mountainside at Yanar Dag, on the Absheron Peninsula near to Baku, and in other areas of the country, attracted crowds of fire-worshippers from across the Middle East and India who revered these places as holy sites.

This worship laid the foundation of the Novruz customs, and the fires have been widely replicated in the city this week as part of the celebrations marking the coming of Spring, which involve homage to the four elements of earth, wind, water and fire.

Travelling in from the airport on Tuesday, we passed numerous bonfires in the streets around which young people had gathered. It is one of the many traditions of Novruz that lighting such fires, and jumping over them, will bring good luck. Judging by the height of some of the blazes in the Baku streets, that outcome looked questionable to say the least.

While I was blithering about in the city today, I met a member of the Azerbaijani military. He was friendly - it seems to be the natural disposition of people here - and we got chatting.

He told me how he had learned English through the tunes of The Beatles, whom he loved. We joked about "Getting Better Every Day..." He remarked on the fact that Margaret Thatcher had died.

The Beatles, unofficial English language coaches, pictured in 1966 ©Getty ImagesThe Beatles, unofficial English language coaches, pictured in 1966 ©Getty Images

We got onto the subject of the Falklands War, and how young Argentinians and Britons ended up dying for reasons which become less clear the more one studies them. A boy I knew at school, three years older than me, died in that war, shot down as he piloted a helicopter. Why? Political strings, political levers...

We got onto the subject of the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the war which flared with neighbouring Armenia, the fires of which still burn, unresolved, to this day.

We got onto the subject of Armenia's recent decision to take part in the Baku 2015 European Games which will start here on June 12.

Was it, I wondered, a popular decision as far as the people of Azerbaijan were concerned?

This military man was unequivocal. "It is sport," he said. "They are free to come in sport. We welcome them in sport."

There are many reasons to applaud this inaugural European Games, which has come so far in such a short space of time. But surely this is the best of them.

"When I first arrived here I said this was not a marathon, this was a sprint for 30 months," said Simon Clegg, the Baku 2015 chief operating officer, when I spoke to him in his office at the Baku European Games Operation Committee (BEGOC) overlooking Freedom Square.

"We continue to sprint. And we will need every one of the 86 remaining days – er, should I say 85 days, two hours and 40 minutes, not that I'm counting! - to get us where we need to be."

Baku's city centre will see traditional Novruz celebrations embracing the forthcoming European Games this week ©Getty ImagesBaku's city centre will see traditional Novruz celebrations embracing the forthcoming European Games this week ©Getty Images

These historic Games are very much within the can-do spirit signalled by the recent International Olympic Committee's re-booting at the Agenda 2020 Congress. But it goes a little deeper than that.

Today, on the Boulevard which leads off Freedom Square, a celebration of the European Games will be incorporated into the traditional Novruz celebrations which take place there, with demonstration displays of the sports which will pull people towards this city later this summer.

The weather may be a little grey, but the area which Clegg describes as the "soul" of the European Games – he holds firm to the idea that the "heart" will reside within the Athletes Village – will fill with activity, energy, celebration. It's a demonstration of sports, to be sure. But beyond that, it's a demonstration of...flexibility.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, The Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. To follow him on Twitter click here.