Liam Morgan

If the message coming from European Olympic Committees (EOC) President Patrick Hickey concerning Armenia’s controversial participation in the inaugural European Games was that they were thrilled to have the country competing despite political tension with hosts Azerbaijan, the message coming from the crowd at the Opening Ceremony was the polar opposite.

As the Armenian delegation entered the fray at the Olympic Stadium, the partisan audience responded with a chorus of boos and chants of “Az-er-bai-jan” directed at their visitors.

Make no mistake, this wasn’t just one perpetrator - this was a mass statement that clearly told the Armenian athletes that they are far from welcome in the Azerbaijani capital.

While it cannot be doubted that an inaugural European Games with representatives from all 50 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) is a huge selling point, I wonder whether those who have made the short trip from across the border to participate believe it is worth it.

For it is not them who are at the heart of the row over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory - that is of course down to the politicians and the powers that be - yet they were at the forefront of an appallingly-poor reception from the Azerbaijani crowd, completely bereft of the Olympic spirit that has been a prevalent mantra in the build-up to the Games.

Sport is often revered for its ability to put aside differences between nations but at times it can also be a platform for hatred.

It can be a platform for spectators to vent their anger at members from other countries without thinking what ramifications that may have.

Because the masses who booed and jeered and ensured a hostile welcome, if you can call it that, for Armenia, did nothing more than to partially spoil a Ceremony that had everything.

Armenia's entrance in the athlete's parade was greeted with boos and cheers from large parts of the Azerbaijani crowd
Armenia's entrance in the athlete's parade was greeted with boos and cheers from large parts of the Azerbaijani crowd ©Getty Images

But even the abhorrent response handed to the modest Armenian delegation was overshadowed by the fact the headline act was none other than international music star and well-known extrovert Lady Gaga and when the announcement was made, the press area was awash with surprise.

The build-up to the Games had been blemished by reports of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan and reports of members of Amnesty International, as well as a British newspaper journalist, being refused entry into the country for the event in Baku.

But for around 10 minutes or so as Gaga, looking far from uneasy despite wearing something that isn’t edible for a change, delivered a stirring rendition of John Lennon’s classic “Imagine”, all was seemingly forgotten.

It was in fact quite moving to witness the American demonstrate her powerful vocal chords while the Olympic Stadium was blackened out, lit up purely by mobile phones capturing the once in a lifetime moment.

Landing a name with the prestige and celebrity of Gaga reportedly cost around $2 million (£1.3 million/€1.8 million) - they’re not short of a few bob here - but it also demonstrated the ambition, drive and tenacity of Baku 2015.

Even though insidethegames editor Duncan Mackay made the very relevant point that surely there must have been a European artist to perform the leading role during our comprehensive live blog on Friday, it was difficult not to stand back and think that having Gaga perform was a true coup for the event as a whole.

There would have been many inside the Stadium who thought she was more than worth the money but it is fair to say that she should have had a much more central role rather than being hidden behind a bush.

Gaga would have gotten used to being stowed away however as she was reportedly kept hidden in a hotel in Azerbaijan before the Ceremony in order to maintain the element of surprise.

Lady Gaga was the surprise headliner of a breathtaking Opening Ceremony
Lady Gaga was the surprise headliner of a breathtaking Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

Despite the adverse response to the entrance of Armenia, the top table of delegates - featuring the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, and Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) chief Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah - were treated to a truly mesmerising Opening Ceremony that carried all the grandeur we expected.

The tension and build-up was dwarfed by a concoction of enthusiasm, excitement and probably a sense of relief that the wait was finally over as the crowds eagerly flocked to the glittering Olympic Stadium.

It is relevant to mention here however that the Stadium itself, while the centrepiece of an obvious bid for the Olympics in future, is a constant reminder of one of the major flaws of this inaugural European Games.

The arena is fit for any track or field champion - Bolt, Isinbayeva et al - and the fact that only third-tier athletes will compete at the Games remains a hurdle that must be overcome if the concept is to have any future at all.

Yet aside from that issue, which has been one of the many to have been raised on a regular basis in the build-up to the Games, Baku 2015 put on a spectacular show.

They promised much and delivered even more.

The Ceremony, led by Britain's Catherine Ugwu, who had a hand in the London 2012 Ceremonies, began with a hubbub of anticipation and one glimpse at the stage and it was obvious those lucky enough to witness it were in for a treat.

Various styles and forms of music were used to ramp up the bumper crowd  - from what sounded like folk to generic pop that the world has grown to love in recent years - and the stereotypical Mexican wave then swept around the Stadium in mesmeric fashion.

Soon the arena became a sea of white camera flashes and expectant grins as the clock ticked towards 9pm local time, and as showtime veered ever closer, the centre stage was graced by 1,000 dancers, before the music began and the first round of fireworks were launched into the Azeri sky.

In a clever show of synchronicity, the outside of the Olympic Stadium then lit up in the colours of the Azerbaijani flag as the dresses of the dancers were turned over to show the red, blue and green.

The European Games Torch made a typically pronounced arrival, carried in to the arena by double Paralmypic judoka gold medallist Ilham Zakiyev, completing the 5,500 kilometres journey it had made across the country of Azerbaijan.

Following that particular segment, a large sphere depicted as a pomegranate, one of the symbols of the nation, opened up and hundreds of red balloons exited the stadium, while some decided to linger in order to watch the main event unfold.

While the Armenians were booed, there were plenty of positive stories in the athletes’ parade, most notably the entrance of Kosovo, who are competing at their first-ever multi-sport Games.

It marked an incredible journey for the nation onto the sporting stage following their drawn-out battle for independence and they became fully-fledged members of both the EOC and International Olympic Committee in December of last year.

EOC President Patrick Hickey would have been disappointed to hear the reaction of the Azerbaijani crowd when Armenia entered the fray
EOC President Patrick Hickey would have been disappointed to hear the reaction of the Azerbaijani crowd when Armenia entered the fray ©Getty Images

Their arrival onto the global sporting stage - while this is a European event, coverage is being streamed across all parts of the world - signified how sport and politics can in fact interlink.

Unlike the Armenian arrival.

Other nations to receive a rapturous response were Azerbaijan’s allies Turkey, Georgia and Russia, while the noise level also increased when Great Britain were announced, seemingly due to the strong influence of Britons in all sectors of the Baku 2015 project.

But they were mere blots on the canvas compared to when, last but not least, the name of Azerbaijan reverberated around the stadium.

A cocophany of noise greeted their presence - the tempo skipped several notches, the music grew louder and the arena turned a sea of blue, red and green.

It marked not only a significant moment for the event as a whole - the announcement of the host nation is always greeted vehemently by a largely-partisan crowd - but also for a country that is trying to emerge on the global stage, in spite of all the human rights issues that hang over their heads.

The Opening Ceremony was a breathtaking spectacle and a perfect way to open the European Games
The Opening Ceremony was a breathtaking spectacle and a perfect way to open the European Games ©Getty Images

As the event drew to a close with another exquisite segment involving the Flame, you got the sense that every one of the 68,000 had witnessed something special.

Thankfully for Hickey, sitting alongside his fellow dignitaries for large parts of the show, the appearance of Gaga and a truly encapsulating Ceremony ensured the headlines largely steered away from the tetchy Armenian topic.

He can also be thankful that it didn’t take too much gloss of what was an enthralling spectacle that dazzled the crowd and many millions across the world.

Organisers will be hoping the sport itself can match that level.

If it can, we’re in for one hell of a ride.