Whilst serving as Prime Ministerial Trade Envoy I visited the South Caucasus and Central Asia many times. My focus was mainly commercial – especially in Azerbaijan, where the UK contributes half of all foreign direct investment.
In 2012, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the inaugural European Games to Azerbaijan. This left just two and a half years to complete a project that would normally take between five and seven years. The fact that the organisers succeeded in meeting this very tight deadline was largely down to British expertise.
Visitors to Baku 2015 would have landed at a British-designed airport terminal. They may well have been whisked to the Games or to their hotel in an iconic London cab, hundreds of which ply their trade in the bustling streets of Baku. And once they made it to the stadium they would undoubtedly have been impressed by the opening ceremony and games – organised by Simon Clegg CBE, former Chief Executive of the British Olympic Committee. It was he who masterminded the successful UK campaign for the London 2012 Olympic Games before becoming head of the Baku European Games Operations Committee (BEGOC).
During the past two and a half years, I have witnessed the preparations to host the Games first-hand. The construction programme across the city was unprecedented, involving 20,000 contractors. Altogether, there were 18 competition arenas, including newly built venues for gymnastics, BMX, aquatics and shooting, together with a purpose-built 68,000-seater stadium for the athletics and opening and closing ceremonies.
More than 6,000 athletes from 50 countries competed for medals in 20 sports, 16 of which provided qualification opportunities for the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. They were housed in a brand-new athletes’ village of 1,042 apartments, provided with 800 tonnes of food formulated by top nutritionists,
and supplied from one of the largest kitchens in Europe.
For the opening ceremony, sitting alongside 68,000 other spectators, we were treated to a fantastic show that captured the vibrancy, colour and spirit of The Land of Fire. The spectacle included kaleidoscopic dance sequences, fireworks, an enormous pomegranate releasing balloon ‘seeds’, Alim Qasimov performing mugham whilst seated on a flying carpet, evocations of the petroglyphs at Gobustan, Lady Gaga performing John Lennon’s Imagine, and the final torch being carried by Ilham Zakiyev, the double Olympic gold medal-winning judoka. Ilham was blinded by an Armenian sniper’s bullet when serving on the ‘contact line’ between Azerbaijan and the occupied territories.
The opening demonstrated the amazing unifying power of the European Games. Thomas Bach, President of IOC, commented: “We see Russian athletes competing alongside Ukrainians. There are Serbian and Kosovan teams in these Games, and we see Armenian athletes alongside their hosts from Azerbaijan. All these athletes marched together at the Opening Ceremony.
“This is the power of sport – to bring people together regardless of background, belief or nationality. This is something that sport can do, and maybe something that only sport can do.”
Mr Bach continued: “The opening ceremony was truly spectacular, and full of history, symbolism and culture. The ceremony and the whole organisation of the European Games reflect the magnificent job the organisers have done in such a short period of time. It has been a great achievement.”
Of course, we must all be mindful of the criticism in the Western press. However, I have to say that wherever I visited, and whomever I spoke to, I encountered only enthusiasm for the Games, and I am delighted that British expertise has contributed to this success. This is a country determined to make its mark on the international stage and whoever hosts the next European Games will have a tough act to follow.