The European Games have been over 50 years in the making and join the Pan American, Asian and African Games in a worldwide network. Each of these were a long time coming and all had their fair share of growing pains.
One hundred years ago, an American called Elwood S Brown was a director of physical education for the YMCA in the Philippines. His enthusiasm played a big part in launching the first Far Eastern Games held in Manila in 1913. For the then International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Pierre de Coubertin, these “answered a real need.”
Coubertin was not totally convinced of the value of regional events but he was keen to develop his Olympic ideas in Latin America. In 1917 ,he published "What is Olympism?" translated into Spanish by the Salvadorian Pedro Jaime de Matheu, soon to join the IOC.
America was now involved in the war and Brown had enlisted. When the fighting stopped, he helped organise the Inter Allied Games of 1919 and the following year he addressed the IOC Session in Antwerp. With Coubertin’s blessing, Brown helped persuade the organisers to expand an event planned to mark the centenary of Brazil. This was now thrown open to competitors from the whole of Latin America.
Comte Henry Baillet-Latour, soon to succeed Coubertin as IOC President, did travel to Rio for the Games. He was delighted by the impressive ceremonies but there were organisational shortcomings and it proved impossible to stage a second Games. In Central America they held a similar event in 1926. The Olympic Games themselves of 1932 were awarded to Los Angeles, only the second time they had ever been outside Europe and in 1937 a Pan American exhibition was held in Dallas. This was scheduled to last 142 days and did include a limited sports programme.
By this time there should also have been an event in Africa.
”Let Africa join in!" was Coubertin’s cry, but although an event in Algiers was planned for 1925, difficulties in building the facilities forced its cancellation. Angelo Bolanaki, the IOC’s man in Egypt was put in charge of promoting the Olympic idea in Africa. It was announced that the African Games would now be in Alexandria in 1927, but they were then postponed again and finally shelved in 1929. Britain and France were said to be wary of the political forces that might be unleashed in what were still at the time colonial territories.
The coming of global war in the late thirties put the spread of the Olympic idea through regional Games, but in 1939, word came from Argentina that they wanted to organise Pan American Games to compensate for the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics.
At a continental sports congress held in the city the following summer, 16 nations agreed on a Pan American Games scheduled for November 1942.
“War has changed things in this hemisphere but these Games will serve to unite the youth of the continent as they have never before been united,” said organising president Juan Carlos Palacios.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the war had now spread to the United States. Even so US Olympic President Avery Brundage was determined to compete in Buenos Aires.
“We feel it is our duty to carry on. Plans executed before war was declared can be streamlined to meet the emergency," he said.
The organisers in Buenos Aires did not bow to the inevitable until early 1942, less than eight months before the Games were scheduled to take place. Initially postponed until 1943, the first Pan American Games did not eventually take place until 1951. It was decided that they should still be held in Buenos Aires. The Opening Ceremony was given a little extra stardust by the presence of "Evita", officially known as Eva Duarte de Peron. Her husband President Juan Domingo Peron opened the Games calling upon “the brother sportsmen of the Americas to compete in the spirit of Ancient Greece”. They have been held ever since in the year before the Olympic Games.
A few weeks after the birth of the Pan Ams came the first fully fledged Asian Games. In the 1930s an Indian educationalist called Professor Guru Dutt Sondhi helped establish the West Asian Games. In the late forties, it was he who took the Times of India at their word when they suggested “India should sponsor the Asian Games". He discussed the idea with IOC President Sigfrid Edstrom whilst in London for the 1948 Olympics. Sondhi found an ally in Jorge Bartolome Vargas, IOC member in the Philippines. Within a year, an Asian Games Federation had been founded. Delhi was chosen as host city for the first “Asiad” and Manila followed in 1954. Since then the Asian Games have been staged in the middle year between the Olympic Games.
In the late fifties, Africa was also changing. The British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan spoke of “the wind of change” in the politics. Matters were on the move in the sporting arena as well. Two Egyptians had already led the way in the foundation of the Mediterranean Games, football’s Africa Cup of Nations began in 1957 and a gathering of French speaking African nations called “The Friendship Games” was organised for 1960 in Madagascar. These were a success and finally, almost forty years after they had first been planned , the first “All African Games” finally became a reality. They were held in the Congolese city of Brazzaville in 1965.
“That was the date of African sport’s full coming into being. It gave the world such a demonstration that it aroused admiration, applause and encouragement,” said Jean Claude Ganga, who later became secretary of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa.
Which left only Europe. The continent had dominated Olympic affairs for the preceding 60 years. Before Melbourne in 1956, the only cities from outside Europe to stage the Olympics were St Louis and Los Angeles (with Lake Placid for the Winter Games). Europe already had very well developed continental sports set up. In football, the Mitropa Cup, established in the 1920s, had paved the way for a new adventure in 1955, the first competition in what eventually became the UEFA Champions League.
The core Olympic sports of Swimming and Athletics both had well established European Championships.
By the late fifties, there was also a new and powerful presence in European sport. After decades of isolation the USSR now pitched enthusiastically into Olympic competitions.
In 1960 the IOC gathered before the Rome Olympics and were presented with a startling proposal. The IOC member in the USSR, Konstantin Adrianov suggested "the organising of European Games which are to take place in Moscow in 1962. He hopes the International Olympic Committee will approve this scheme, and thinks that these Games should afford a meeting ground for athletes belonging to 33 European countries.”
The idea was supported by Dr Josef Gruss, IOC Member in Czechoslovakia, and Hungarian Ferenc Mezo. President Avery Brundage gave cautious support: “It does not fall within the power of the International Olympic Committee to take the initiative of these Games, but it will certainly grant them its patronage if these Games are set afoot," he said.
Away from sport, this was a time of tension between the Kremlin and the West. The Cuban Missile crisis came to a head in 1962. The European Games in Moscow were forgotten.
The idea of European Games was raised again in 1965 at a conference by Maurice Herzog, IOC member and a member of President de Gaulle’s government in France.
Herzog was also a mountaineer so he was no doubt ready for a difficult passage to the summer. The cities of Mulhouse in France, Basle in Switzerland and Freiburg-in-Breisgau in Germany put themselves forward as a candidate from the Rhineland to launch these Games. The European Olympic Committees (EOC) met during the 1967 IOC Session held in Tehran and the Italian Giulio Onesti later reported to the IOC on a meeting at which 14 of the 21 in attendance were in favour of a European Games as a “synthesis and substitute” for the existing European Championships in many sports. Five opposed the idea and the remaining three “expressed reservations".
Even so, a working group composed of representatives of France, Switzerland, Germany, the USSR and Belgium were asked to develop the idea further.
Shortly before the Mexico Olympics in 1968, the Europeans met again at Versailles. They were still enthusiastic but behind the scenes there had been intrigue in sporting politics. The IOC President of 16 years, American Brundage, had faced increasing opposition to what was seen as his autocratic rule. An organisation called the Permanent Assembly of National Olympic Committees had been founded by the Italian Giulio Onesti.
On the other flank the International Sports Federations were flexing their muscles with the foundation of the General Assembly of International Sports Federations (GAISF), later known as SportAccord. Brundage was the first but not the last IOC President to regard this organisation with suspicion.
The year 1968 proved to be one of political unrest in Europe so perhaps it was not too much of a surprise that the idea of European Games again slid down the agenda. During the seventies, the IOC were preoccupied with politics.
In the wake of serious political boycott which blighted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and those in Los Angeles four years later, President of the EOC Jacques Rogge was determined to bring the youngsters of Europe together. The result was a competition founded as the European Youth Olympic Days, later renamed the European Youth Olympic Festival (EYOF). Almost before the ink was dry on the contracts, the Berlin Wall fell. Even so, these competitions for 14-18 year-olds provided a valuable template for the Youth Olympic Games.
By 2007, Ireland’s Patrick Hickey had taken over as EOC President. A feasibility study commissioned at the General Assembly in Valencia proved positive. Universal approval greeted the announcement: “The project will come to fruition in 2015 thanks to the generous offer of the city of Baku."
It has taken over 100 years to complete the Olympic circle of regional Games. It has surely been worth the wait.