Daniel Etchells

I still vividly remember the moment I was offered a job at insidethegames when managing director Sarah Bowron called me from a place then unbeknown to me; Baku. 

Sat playing FIFA 14 at my former home in Manchester, it came as quite a surprise to me to receive a WhatsApp message from Sarah asking if I was free to talk over the phone, especially when she told me that it had gone two o’clock in the morning in the Azerbaijani capital.

Just over nine months later I’m sat at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev International Airport waiting to board a flight to London Heathrow after spending the past 26 days covering both the build-up and 12 days of competition at the inaugural European Games.

Having been immersed in the preparations for the multi-sport event throughout my time at insidethegames, I now often wonder to myself how my friends’ awareness of the Games is limited to the fact it’s been plastered on Atlético Madrid’s since the start of this year. Then I stop and realise, I’d almost definitely be in the same boat as them had I not been working for insidethegames

Despite Baku 2015 signing a broadcast agreement with BT Sport back in April there was barely any coverage of the preparations for the European Games within the mainstream British media, and barring the controversial banning of The Guardian's chief sports correspondent Owen Gibson from the Games over his coverage of Azerbaijan’s human rights record, and the odd medal here and there for Team GB, it has largely remained the same since the event got under way on June 12.

Baku 2015 was Atlético Madrid's shirt sponsor for the back end of last season
Baku 2015 was Atlético Madrid's shirt sponsor for the back end of last season ©Getty Images

One news story that has been picked up on today though is the tragic death of a British subcontractor working for FiveCurrents, who are the production team for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of Baku 2015, following a car crash.

The incident, which occurred on Heydar Aliyev Prospeckti yesterday, also reportedly led to the Azerbaijani driver being killed, and three other FiveCurrents employees being taken to hospital.

As my colleague Nick Butler commented on our live blog today, it sadly appeared to be an accident waiting to happen such is the endless chaos on Baku’s roads.

I first experienced it on my first visit to Baku when attending a European Games gymnastics test event back in March and specifically remember commenting to members of the Baku 2015 European Games Operations Committee (BEGOC) and fellow journalists that I would take no pleasure whatsoever in driving around the city, 

With every horn that sounds, and trust me there’s a lot of them, there’s always that feeling that one is going to culminate in a collision. 

Lane discipline seems to be a concept completely lost on Azerbaijani taxi drivers, who often position their vehicles bang smack on the road dividers, while the lack of consideration for what’s going on behind them is particularly noticeable, focusing merely on avoiding the car in front and expecting the car behind to do likewise regardless of how erratically they’re driving themselves. 

The fatal accident follows the shocking moment on June 11, a day prior to the Baku 2015 Opening Ceremony, when three members of Austria’s synchronised swimming team were hit by a bus at the Baku 2015 Athletes’ Village, leaving 15-year-old Vanessa Sahinovic with severe injuries.

The roads in Baku are very chaotic to say the least
The roads in Baku are very chaotic to say the least ©Getty Images

This certainly didn’t do any favours for the image of the European Games whose chief operating officer Simon Clegg has had more than enough questions to contend with regarding the appeal of the event in both the host nation and across the world.

Although attendances have been pretty strong at venues where home athletes have been competing, the site of empty seats has been all too familiar during the first dozen days of competition and no manipulation of statistics can get away from that fact.

I noticed this most at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, where I was covering the men’s and women’s archery team finals on Thursday (June 18).

The 31,200-capacity venue was lifeless and although archery by it’s very nature as a stop-start sport is far from the most suited towards generating a vibrant atmosphere, it was disappointing to see it not even be given a chance due to the lack of bums on seats.

Had it not been for a bunch of lively Ukrainian supporters during the men's finals, you could have heard a pin drop for much of the day's action. 

Russia's dominance at these Games certainly hasn't helped in this regard either, although you can’t take anything away from their athletes who have been utterly professional in delivering what in a lot of cases is expected of them. 

A total of 18 gold medals for Russia across the five gymnastics disciplines is a particularly striking statistic, while the sambo competition on Monday (June 22) saw the Eastern European nation claim five of the eight titles on offer with three of those coming at the expense of Azerbaijani athletes. 

It’s important ahead of the 2019 edition of the European Games that the sports programme is tweaked wherever possible to try and bridge the huge gap between them and the rest. Inevitably Russia will still be right up there and most likely at the top of the pile, but with 69 medals and 37 golds separating them and the overall standings' second-placed country Azerbaijan, it's not particularly healthy. 

Russia's domination of the Baku 2015 sambo competition was reflective of that of the European Games as a whole
Russia's domination of the Baku 2015 sambo competition was reflective of that of the European Games as a whole ©Getty Images

Another issue that needs to be addressed within the next four years is the standard of the athletics and swimming competitions, which must be raised considerably if these Games are to gain the sort of the respect they aspire to in the long term.

The European Team Championships Third League may have been dramatic at times, with Austria missing gold by half a point after their London 2012 T46 800 metres champion Gunther Matzinger dropped the baton in the concluding men’s 4x400m relay, but it’ll take a lot more than that to paper over one of the European Games’ biggest cracks.

Comments made this week by Svein Arne Hansen, President of European Athletics, certainly provide some reason for encouragement on this front, with the Norwegian telling exclusively insidethegames he’s "optimistic" athletics will at least feature at the next edition of the quadrennial European Games.

Whether that will bring with it a higher standard of competition remains to be seen but, as Hansen noted, a reasonably open calendar in 2019, with the World Championships in Doha being held later in the year, bodes well for attracting the crème de la crème of European athletics.

One of the more promising aspects of these European Games however has been the fact that failed drug tests have been at a premium. The only reported case thus far has been that of Albania’s 19-year-old boxer Rexhildo Zeneli after he registered a urine sample containing diuretic Furosemide, a banned substance under the World Anti-Doping Agency’s List of Prohibited Substances and Prohibited Methods.

His ensuing exclusion from competition made the headlines for obvious reasons, but at a time in sport where major multi-sport events rarely pass by without being hit by some sort of drug scandal, it’s positive for the creditability of the European Games that there’s only been one case  to date.

Austria's Gunther Matzinger caused plenty of drama after dropping the baton in the men’s 4x400m relay
Austria's Gunther Matzinger caused plenty of drama after dropping the baton in the men’s 4x400m relay ©Getty Images

As much as I’m disappointed that I won’t get to see out the remainder of the Games and the Closing Ceremony, I can’t complain too much given that I’ll be flying out to Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby on Sunday (June 28) ahead of another continental multi-sport event, the Pacific Games.

Scheduled to take place from July 4 to 18, it’ll be interesting to make a swift transition from a Games that has just started out to one that has been established on the sporting calendar from as far back as 1963. 

It will take quite some time for the European Games to build up the same level of history that its continental counterparts already have, but Baku 2015 has certainly provided a good base on which to work on.

There's still a lot of areas where improvements can be made and if the European Olympic Committees and the next hosts can work together successfully to tackle these, there’s no reason why Europe can’t go on to establish a multi-sport event that even the very best athletes can’t turn their noses up at in the future.