Patrick Burke

Tomorrow, the World Taekwondo Championships is set to become the latest sporting event added to the portfolio of Azerbaijan's capital Baku.

Since arriving on Friday (May 29), national and international officials have talked up the host nation's recently found status as a destination of choice for several sports event organisers.

"I'm really happy to be back in Baku after the long pandemic period," World Taekwondo President Chungwon Choue said yesterday. "I still vividly remember my first visit to Baku in 2004, that was quite a long time ago but since then I visited Azerbaijan many times.

"Whenever I come to Baku I can see many changes, especially Azerbaijan supporting and developing taekwondo in this country. A long time ago, I had the chance to honour President [Ilham] Aliyev an honorary Dan certificate at the highest level.

"From time to time, I had the chance to meet with him at international sports events, and he was always supportive towards taekwondo."

Azerbaijan's Deputy Minister of Sport Mariana Vasileva boasted of the country's prowess when it comes to hosting sport events.

"Today the first development of Azerbaijani sport is in the spotlight of the world community," she said.

"Our country became a favourite place for many prestigious international events. Baku is hosting such a big event for the first time."

Competition is set to be held at the Baku Crystal Hall, a shiny venue that can be spotted right the way around the city's Bay. It was constructed for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, and went on to take centre stage when Azerbaijan's capital was awarded the inaugural European Games in 2015.

Volleyball, boxing, fencing, karate and taekwondo were all held there during Baku 2015.

Earlier this month, the European Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships were held at a European Games new build in the National Gymnastics Arena.

The 68,000-seater Baku Olympic Stadium was also constructed for athletics and the Ceremonies at the European Games, and has gone on to host major UEFA events including the men's Europa League final in 2019 and matches at the delayed pan-continental 2020 European Championship, despite concerns over Azerbaijan's distance from mainland Europe.

The European Games, three years on from Eurovision, brought Azerbaijan publicity aplenty.

The World Taekwondo Championships are due to begin tomorrow in Baku ©World Taekwondo
The World Taekwondo Championships are due to begin tomorrow in Baku ©World Taekwondo

Baku is a city with a lot to like - it is booming, and the volunteers, officials and general public I have met so far have all been friendly and welcoming.

But not all of that publicity associated with the European Games was good.

Human rights campaigners raised concerns over the treatment of LGBTQ+ people, a crackdown on press freedom and dissident activists in the build-up to Baku 2015 under the Presidency of Aliyev.

In what probably should be a pub quiz question if it isn't already, Aliyev is President of Azerbaijan's National Olympic Committee as well as head of state. He has led the country since 2003, succeeding his father Heydar Aliyev, to whom commemorations of what would have been his 100th birthday earlier this month can be seen from Baku right the way from the airport which is named after him through to the Crystal Hall.

Some of the issues raised in the build-up to the European Games are still there. New Zealand's Max Watene has opted not compete at the World Taekwondo Championships due to fears over Azerbaijan's records on LGBTQ+ rights, for example.

My colleague Owen Lloyd ran an excellent blog from the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix last month, which you can read here, examining the extent to which this amounts to "sportswashing".

Yet off the back of welcoming Europe for Eurovision and the European Games, Azerbaijan is firmly on the sporting map.

The European Games, whose branding can still be seen in parts of Baku, has delivered facilities that are there to be used and set a precedent which has put the city on a one-way street to becoming a major sports destination.

It wants more too, with Minister of Youth and Sports of Azerbaijan Farid Gayibov telling insidethegames last week Azerbaijan is contemplating a bid for the 2031 International University Sports Federation Summer World University Games and "always interested" in multi-sports events.

The Baku 2015 European Games has proved a catalyst for further sports events in Azerbaijan's capital ©Getty Images
The Baku 2015 European Games has proved a catalyst for further sports events in Azerbaijan's capital ©Getty Images

"It is good for sports in the country but also brings a lot of tourists," Gayibov said.

"Our volunteers are benefitting a lot.

"They have been able to travel outside for events as well after gaining experience from the home events."

Azerbaijan is not the only country to set the ball rolling to becoming a trusted host for sports through staging a mega event.

The Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup initially looked as though it might prove an exception to the norm in failing to boost the nation's profile, such was the furore over the disputed awarding of the tournament in 2010 and concerns over the host's human rights record, including its treatment of migrant workers on projects for the event.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino only seemed to throw fuel on the already roaring fire with his sensational for all the wrong reasons "today I feel…" press conference on the eve of the World Cup, as did the controversy surrounding the OneLove armbands.

The Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup has provided a prime example of the boost to a host nation's sporting reputation by staging a mega event ©Getty Images
The Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup has provided a prime example of the boost to a host nation's sporting reputation by staging a mega event ©Getty Images

Yet once a few entertaining football matches were played in Qatar, including what many viewed as the greatest final of all time and the crowning moment of Argentinian star Lionel Messi's career, those issues gradually slipped discourse.

Constructing seven new stadiums in and around Doha was suddenly transformed from a costly project which for many epitomised the greed of modern football into a well-thought out concept which, we were told, suited fans well because of the short distances between venues and served the interests of "sustainability" by cutting down travel.

Any doubts over Qatar 2022's impact for the host nation were allayed when the country was awarded the men's Basketball World Cup for 2027 last month. Even more remarkably, suggestions it could step into to replace France for the 2025 Rugby League World Cup do not appear as far-fetched as they would have been pre-FIFA World Cup.

Another one you can file alongside the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup and Beijing 2008 Olympics and Paralympics in successfully promoting a controversial host to the world of sport and ultimately serving to improve perceptions.

Hosting sports events should not be gatekept by a small number of suitable countries, of course, but organisers of mega multi-sport events or the World Cup should be left in doubt of the impact of their allocations in years to come.