Liam Morgan

As we settled into the press tribune ahead of the Baku 2015 European Games Opening Ceremony at the plush Olympic Stadium, a volunteer began distributing a piece of paper which revealed the name of the headline act; American pop star Lady Gaga.

At that point - as if the sheer volumes of cash injected into the inaugural event had not confirmed it already - it appeared that Baku truly meant business.

That was exactly a year ago tomorrow - June 12, 2015. What followed, in both the Ceremony and the proceeding 17 days of competition, was supposed to catapult the European Games concept into a position of prominence on the international sporting calendar.

Yet the memory of Lady Gaga’s handsomely-paid appearance 12 months ago has faded into little more than a distant recollection of a grandiose spectacle, along with the European Games itself.

Surely, if it had been the “Big Bang” moment for the continent which chief operating officer Simon Clegg had promised it would be, in the build-up to and even during the Games, we would still be recalling it with wonder. We would be looking ahead to the next edition in 2019 with a sense of anticipation and excitement.

Instead, the event is struggling. Questions about its future remain constant and are surely on the mind of the European Olympic Committees (EOC) and particularly its President Patrick Hickey, considered the Godfather of the Games. Baku 2015 was his brainchild.

The stoic Irishman has faced numerous challenges to his beloved concept ever since the first Games came to an end, and no hurdle seems tougher to clear than the emergence of a rival in the form of the European Championships, which will make its debut in 2018.

Lady Gaga was the headline name at the Baku 2015 European Games Opening Ceremony
Lady Gaga was the headline name at the Baku 2015 European Games Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

From an event perspective, it simply makes more sense than the EOC-led equivalent. The European Championships will see seven sports - cycling, rowing, triathlon, gymnastics, swimming and golf, all in Glasgow alongside athletics in Berlin - host their continental showpiece event simultaneously.

In doing so, they have already managed to eliminate a problem which plagued Baku 2015, where athletes continually pondered the value the European Games had for them amid an already packed schedule right up until they were due to compete.

Even then, the raw emotion you usually associate with these multi-sport Games - where standing atop the podium singing along to your country’s national anthem is the ultimate goal - was largely (though not totally) absent, and you got the sense that the concept itself had failed to inspire those who are supposed to be at its core.

Central to this particular issue was the absence of top-level athletics and swimming, both of which sit proudly among the highest echelon of the Olympic Games. It meant, in some circles, that there was a distinct lack of interest from the start. The EOC and Baku 2015 were fighting a losing battle from the beginning.

At the European Championships, the question of validity has almost no merit; athletes will be competing at their respective Continental Championships as they would have done normally. Only this time, they will be part of a much grander-scale event which brings together some of the planet’s most popular sports. Win-win.

Of course, new kids on the block are always likely to make mistakes, and the European Championships is no different. Organisers European Sports Championships Management (ESCM) have already been involved in a row with the EOC over a supposed contract clause which reportedly tried to banish International Federations from competing in other multi-sports events within the year after their own version has been held.

The European Sports Championship will feature seven sports, including athletics
The European Sports Championship will feature seven sports, including athletics ©Getty Images

This would effectively rule any of the aforementioned septet of sports out of being part of the 2019 European Games. The European Championship Board insist there is no clause restricting participation at other events in any circumstance, or affecting any Federation, however. Correspondences continue to be sent back and forth with little evidence of a resolution.

A letter was sent by European Athletics President Svein-Arne Hansen and his European Swimming Federation counterpart Paolo Barelli aiming to clear-up any "misunderstandings" last month, but this was not considered enough by the EOC. They told insidethegames they had “not received an unequivocal guarantee from ESCM that the restrictive clause in question had been withdrawn from their proposed contracts for the European Federations”.

At this point, it is worth highlighting the blame for the debacle should be laid at the feet of the ESCM, and that the EOC would have been the obvious victims should the clause have ever made it into the final contract. But still the row rumbles on.

There has even been intervention by the International Olympic Committee, who have set up a new committee to investigate the threat private companies organising major events poses to sport's sovereignty.

It is fair to say the two entities haven’t exactly co-existed harmoniously to date. Perhaps this provides further proof that there is only room for one of them.

So, which one should it be? Well, at this present time, it is difficult to argue that the European Championships stands well out in front.

Critics - and I include myself here - still find it bizarre that six of the seven sports will be held in Scotland, with just one being staged hundreds of miles away in Germany. This is a problem the ESCM will look to remedy as a matter of urgency for future editions.

EOC President Patrick Hickey faced criticism for selecting Azerbaijan as hosts of the 2015 European Games
EOC President Patrick Hickey faced criticism for selecting Azerbaijan as hosts of the 2015 European Games ©Getty Images

Yet even that doesn’t compare to problems hanging over the 2019 European Games. The selection of Russia as the preferred host has only added to the disdain surrounding the idea as, while vast swathes of the sporting fraternity are pillorying Russia and urging for their exile from this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in the wake of its state-supported, widespread doping scandal, the EOC has opted to award them a major-scale sporting event. The timing could not have been worse.

The process to select the destination of the Games in three years’ time remains ongoing. Whether it will even be held in Russia remains a mystery after outspoken Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said earlier this month that they "never sent" an application and are "absolutely busy" until 2020, though what he says these days should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt. The EOC, on the other hand, remain confident their newly-introduced competition will have a home in 2019.

Some might say the EOC were left with little choice following The Netherlands’ decision to call time on a multi-region bid in June of last year, with Russia seemingly the only nation to express even the vaguest of interest. Amid the toxic climate swirling around the world’s largest country, Hickey et al would have been forgiven for looking for any possible reason not to give it to Russia, and the Dutch had provided exactly that until they withdrew, citing financial concerns.

But that doesn't mean Russia should be given the privilege of staging the Games. Far from it. They have shown next to no remorse for their prolonged cheating, denying a plethora of athletes the chance to win an Olympic or World Championship gold, and taking the 2019 edition to the country would only deepen the crisis the event finds itself in.

What we are left with is confusion about what is next for the European Games, just as their ESCM counterparts are ramping up their marketing campaign ahead of their 2018 debut.

Future editions of the European Games should be held on a far less grandiose scale than Baku 2015
Future editions of the European Games should be held on a far less grandiose scale than Baku 2015 ©Getty Images

The EOC themselves are no strangers to criticism, with their choice of Baku for the inaugural European Games still grating with many owing to a poor human rights record in Azerbaijan, coupled with the imprisonment of journalists who dare to speak out against the regime led by President Ilham Aliyev. The particularly pedantic among us will also point out that Azerbaijan isn’t even technically in Europe.

Future European Games must be far more toned down if Hickey’s idea, which looked a good one on the surface, is to survive beyond Baku. The event, while brilliantly organised in a range of areas, from transport to volunteers, was far too big and all a bit unnecessary. It has, justifiably in some cases, been labelled as little more than a vanity project for the Azerbaijani capital, which would have done the reputation of the concept more damage than good.

Still, it would perhaps be premature to imply the end is nigh for the European Games. On the flipside, much work needs to be done if the event is to be establish a true legacy rather than having the inaugural event resemble little more than an expensive bad romance.