Michael Pavitt

If you having been paying attention to the top of the insidethegames site you will have noticed our countdown clocks ticking down to various upcoming Games taking place across the world and on Friday (June 12) Baku 2015 hit zero.

As the countdown finally came to an end it represented the adding of the missing fifth ring of the Olympic Movement, so Europe’s first Continental Games has been billed by European Olympic Committees (EOC) President Patrick Hickey, while personally it represented my first multi-sport event as a journalist.

However, something that may go under the radar throughout the Games will be the number of times Azerbaijan will be holding their first international competition in a particular sport, as they did yesterday with triathlon.

Granted the host nation may not have held an international triathlon event before as it is a sport that remains relatively young, having only made its Olympic debut 15 years ago at Sydney 2000. But the sport has continued to grow in popularity since.

Prior to its debut, I remember watching Britain’s Simon Lessing record one of his many victories at what was then known as the London Triathlon, where if my memory serves me correctly, he also won a car for setting a course record one year. Yet, despite being the favourite heading into Sydney, he was unable to take gold and the prestige associated with the title.

The potential showdown between Olympic champion Nicola Spirig and silver medallist Lisa Norden was an early boost to Baku 2015
The potential showdown between Olympic champion Nicola Spirig and silver medallist Lisa Norden was an early boost to Baku 2015 ©Getty Images

One athlete who has achieved the feat, though, is Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig, who triumphed at the London 2012 Olympics Games following a photo-finish with Sweden’s Lisa Norden. Olympic medals not only give the athlete’s palmārēs an impressive look but their presence at events immediately adds to the level of interest.

That was in evidence at yesterday’s women’s event which was billed as a rematch between the two Olympic medallists, who had not competed against each other since their duel in Hyde Park. Even if a crowd has very little knowledge of an event, a good rivalry is normally enough to spark an interest in the sport.

Arguably the potential Spirig and Norden showdown is exactly the type of action that is required at Baku 2015. Owing to the first edition of the European Games having already attracted some raised eyebrows at its competition levels, with athletics represented by a third tier competition and events like swimming and water polo effectively junior events.

With the women’s triathlon therefore having one of the stronger fields present at the Games, a modest crowd had gathered by the finish of the event, perhaps more in intrigue rather than love for the sport.

Helpfully the announcer was able to talk them through the various components of the race, such as penalties incurred in transition, in addition to hyping up the potential Spirig and Norden clash.

The crowd also had the bonus of the athletes heading past a number of times, either on laps or during transitions, whereas say in a sport like cycling you can blink and the peloton has flashed past.

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I would say that triathlon would offer excellent value for money for spectators, however due to the nature of the sport the public had front row tickets some of Europe’s best athletes without having to pay an entry fee.

Unlike many other sports in which the athletes are hidden away from both the media and spectators, it was noticeable to see the triathletes freely walking around the vicinity, before and after the race, which was held in surely the most picturesque location at the Games, Bilgah Beach.

If the women’s triathlon failed to boost interest in the sport in Azerbaijan, people watching in other nations will have glance their eyes enviously at the seafront location glazed in sunshine – making writing on a laptop extremely difficult from an uncovered press area - and with plenty of sand.

While certainly appearing like weather for flip-flops, shorts and sunglasses, a stiff wind fluttered the competing nation’s flags above. The conditions certainly added to the race with the breeze creating choppy conditions for the 1.5 kilometres swim and helped to separate elite athletes in the field early on.

With The Netherlands' Rachel Klamer leading out of the swim and Russia's Anastasia Abrosimova replaced by Norden and Spirig as they began the bike leg the pre-race promise looked like it might be about to be fulfilled.

As the front three looked almost certain to have secured the medals after breaking well clear on the bike leg, the intrigue lied in trying to judge who the strongest athlete was prior to the run.

Spirig turned back to encourage her former rivals after securing gold
Spirig turned back to encourage her former rivals after securing gold ©Getty Images

Spirig was clearly seen as the favourite, while the Dutch athlete Klamer appeared to be grimly hanging on to the Olympic gold and silver medallists and remaining part the three-woman lead group.

It did seem somewhat fitting when the Olympic champion Spirig powered away from her nearest two rivals on the run to become the first athlete to hold both Olympic and European Games titles at the same time.

Also having an Olympic champion prevailing on the opening day of competition, in front of the International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, must surely have raised a smile at Baku 2015 and EOC headquarters.

As for the sport of triathlon, although the event did not take part in front of the masses which greeted the Olympic and indeed Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games races, the race certainly lived up to expectations, showing why it is a growing and interesting sport to watch.

Perhaps one of the nicest moments that may have gone unnoticed was that, following crossing the line, flag in hand to take gold, Spirig turned back to not only watch the ensuing sprint finish for silver between Klamer and Norden, but began to shout encouragement in the direction of who had been her nearest challengers during the race.

If Baku 2015 can deliver more images of that ilk in several excellent venues, both sport and the European Games as a whole could benefit.