Mike Rowbottom

At Paris Charles De Gaulle airport I look behind me while checking in for the Minsk flight, and suddenly the French team are there, in their dark blue tracksuits and Olympic logo insignia. At departures two groups settle, joking and laughing in between the obligatory scanning of mobiles - boxers, and 3x3 basketball players. You can hear the excitement.

People look across, some clearly wondering what it’s all about, others perhaps aware that these athletes are on their way to the European Games. After a bumpy ride in the aftermath of the 1st European Games in Baku four years ago, the 2nd version – initially planned for Russia, then The Netherlands before being switched to Belarus - is coming to pass.

The old saying that it is better to travel than to arrive, one hopes, will not necessarily be true in this case.

Bye the bye, this particular flight, on which numerous members of the Irish team were also on board, is made memorable by the fact that Belavia, the national airline, is sponsored - somewhat bizarrely - by World of Tanks, whose chunky artwork adorns the curtain separating the officer class up front from the ranks behind.

Upon lowering the tray holder on the back of the seat in front in order to support the lunchtime "field rations" being distributed by our uniformed friends, after a recorded message reminding us that “a well-fed tanker is a happy tanker”, each passenger is presented with a detailed diagram of a historical tank.

We’re not talking fish tanks here. Or water tanks. I, for instance, have an example of a Jagdpanzer 38(T) Hetzer (weight 15.8 tons, gun calibre 75, crew 4) of the type that was used by the Wehrmacht in the Second World War.

Considering what the Wehrmacht did in Belarus during the Second World War it is an interesting choice.

A strange conjunction - Belavia airlines are sponsored by World of Tanks...©Getty Images
A strange conjunction - Belavia airlines are sponsored by World of Tanks...©Getty Images

My next door neighbour, meanwhile, has the opportunity to get himself fully acquainted with the spec of the Waffentrager Auf E-100. Both of us are invited to visit tankolet.com so we may "Register and join the battle".

But we digress.

For some of these athletes, what will happen after they land in Minsk may be transformational. Particularly those with Tokyo 2020 ambitions. Given the placing of these continental multi-event championships in the sporting calendar, qualification for the impending Olympics will always be a hugely valuable feature.

Eight of the events at the Games which are due to get underway on Friday (June 21), when the Opening Ceremony will also take place in the newly refurbished Dinamo Stadium, have elements of Olympic qualification in terms of direct places or ranking points.

Those sports are archery, karate, table tennis, shooting, athletics, badminton, cycling and judo.

Olympic sports 3x3 basketball, gymnastics, boxing, canoe sprint and wrestling also feature on the programme, offering valuable opportunities for potential Olympians to weigh up the merits of some of their potential Tokyo 2020 rivals.

For some participants in these European Games, arrival at Minsk Airport marked the last point - barring the final bus transfer - to a long journey.

But Lorcan McGee, physio with the Irish boxing team, was looking remarkably bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a man whose itinerary for the day had been Belfast to Dublin to Paris to Minsk.

He was upbeat about the prospects of the Irish boxers who will start their competition on Friday, along with the 3x3 basketballers and archers.

"Our boys - and our girls - will do pretty well here," he said with a firm nod.

Meanwhile, the boys and girls of Minsk are doing their utmost to ensure that these Games proceed smoothly.  

Whenever, as a member of the press, you arrive somewhere seriously foreign to you, you always hope to meet someone like Tania, a young volunteer who is an interpreter in her everyday life and who has a command of English and German – not that the latter came much into play as she sorted out the short but vital sequence of requirements of this particular media guest.

The first wave of broadcasters had already gone through the media accreditation centre, so four volunteers were ready to give my passport and visa/ID full attention. The whole process of receiving the sacred square of plastic around my neck too about one minute.

"Have a nice day!" said one young girl sitting at the end of the row, pleased to have a chance to show off her English. "Thank you", I said, entirely ignorant of her language.

After letting me know that it would take a couple of bus rides for me to get to my hotel in the centre of town, and after adding that not many people in Minsk knew English, Tania added that a taxi would cost me no more than 15 dollars and set about organising it.

The competition is a little way off, but in terms of the wider and broader aims of the European Games with regard to reaching out and making friends, Tania and her young volunteer colleagues are already on it…