PARIS (AP) The head of next year's inaugural European Games in Azerbaijan hopes the event will serve as a springboard for a successful Olympic bid from Baku.
Azad Rahimov, who also serves as Azerbaijan's minister of youth and sports, said Wednesday that building high-standard infrastructure for the games in Baku will help promote the capital city's Olympic aspirations. Baku bid for the 2016 and 2020 Olympics but failed to make the short list of finalists both times.
''The European Games are bringing us the chance to create and improve Baku's existing Olympic infrastructure,'' Rahimov said. ''We know what we lacked when we bid in 2016 and 2020. And now we are creating sports venues to Olympic standards, with modern technologies and equipment.''
The European Games will feature 20 sports at 18 competition venues, including the 65,000-capacity National Stadium that will also host matches for the 2020 European football championship. About 6,000 athletes from 49 countries are expected to compete on the shores of the Caspian Sea from June 12-28.
Construction work is on schedule, will all the main venues expected to be finished by February, Rahimov said at a news conference in Paris.
''We only had 2 1/2 years to get ready, but everything will be to the standard of the Olympic Games,'' he said. ''It's very-high level and this is really a good chance for our future bids.''
Besides the National Stadium, Baku organizers are also building an aquatics center with a seating capacity of 6,000, refurbishing roads and revamping existing venues with the generous subsidies allocated by the oil-and-gas-rich country.
Rahimov said the European Games budget is 995 million euros ($1.2 billion), with a further 150 million euros ($187 million) spent so far in operational costs.
After Baku failed to make the cut for the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, Azerbaijan's Olympic committee is expected to bid again for the 2024 Games. Bids must be submitted to the International Olympic Committee next year. Other potential bids could come from the United States, France, Italy, Germany, Qatar and Turkey.
''Baku's capacity of hosting the first European Games will be another step that will make sure it can be awarded the status of candidate city for the Olympics without any problem,'' French Olympic Committee president Denis Masseglia said. ''And once you are candidate, all hopes are permitted.''
Masseglia said France could support a bid from Baku if Paris decides not to enter the race for the 2024 Games. French IOC member Guy Drut, who attended the meeting, praised Baku organizers for their ''very good work'' but said hosting the Olympics would be a far bigger challenge.
''The European Games will serve as a good experience for the Olympics, but the two events can't be compared,'' Drut said. ''Hosting the Olympics is like having 28 soccer World Cups at the same place in just 15 days.''
On a political level, Rahimov played down Azerbaijan's tensions with neighbor Armenia over the sovereignty of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. He said Armenia has agreed to take part in the European Games and that the ongoing conflict won't prevent spectators from traveling to Baku.