European Games under pressure before opening ceremony
BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Even before their first opening ceremony, the European Games are struggling.
Created to provide a European version of long-running continental competitions such as the Pan-American Games and Asian Games, the first edition of the European Games has been battered by sporting and political turmoil.
Without any high-level track and field or swimming competitions - traditionally the two most popular Olympic sports - there are questions over the European Games' credibility as a sports event. Host nation Azerbaijan brings immense oil wealth to the table, but also a much-criticized human rights record.
For organizers, the games are simply a way to revitalize European sport.
''It was ridiculous why Europe did not have its own games,'' says Patrick Hickey, the head of the European Olympic Committees and the main driving force behind the creation of the June 12-28 games. ''There has been a decline in Europe winning medals at various Olympic Games since 2008 and I think these games will help redress that situation.''
On Wednesday, two days before the opening ceremony, there came another blow when the Netherlands abruptly pulled out of hosting the 2019 European Games, less than a month after being chosen by Hickey's EOC.
The timing of the Dutch withdrawal was ''purely coincidental'' and two more cities are interested in hosting the 2019 event, Hickey said.
The European Games are unquestionably big - more than 6,000 athletes are competing, double the number at last year's Winter Olympics in Sochi - but have struggled to cement themselves in the packed sports calendar.
In attempting to create a new Europe-wide multi-sports event, organizers were faced with numerous vested interests, especially among European sports federations with their own continental championships, some of them big money earners.
Athletics and swimming are the two main holdouts. Reluctant to create a rival to their own competitions, both sports allowed only low-level competitions in Baku.
All events in the pool will be for juniors, while crowds at the 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium will watch athletes compete in Europe's fourth-level international team competition.
''I accept that track and field, athletics and swimming is a lower-level event, I'm not trying to hide away from this,'' said Simon Clegg, the former British Olympic Association chief executive who has led Baku's preparations.
In some events, mostly the combat sports that are popular in Azerbaijan, competitions boast numerous Olympic and world championship medalists. For others, the entry lists are packed with 16-year-old hopefuls and athletes with little chance of qualifying for next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The uneven nature of the competitions makes it hard to predict who could top the medal table, but Russia is the early favorite after sending strong teams for most events, including Olympic gymnastics champion Aliya Mustafina.
Of the 20 sports on the program in Baku, organizers say 12 offer Olympic qualification. Many only do so indirectly, by offering world ranking points or, as in the case of track and field, simply offering a chance to achieve qualifying standards, just like any regular meet.
If this month's games in Azerbaijan are successful, the EOC can strengthen the competition for 2019 by giving athletics and swimming an ultimatum, Clegg said.
''In the future, this puts the European Olympic committees in a very strong position to negotiate with the European federations as to if they want to be in the program next time, they have to have the top level, or they are out,'' he said.
Athletics and swimming are already involved in a rival to the European Games, which would bring together rescheduled versions of existing continental competitions under the name of the European Sports Championships. That plan would give the sports federations more control - and likely more income - than the European Games model.
In the meantime, Azerbaijan's status as host nation is causing headaches.
The Azerbaijani government - headed by members of the Aliyev family for the last 22 years - has been criticized by human rights campaigners who say the government has imprisoned political opponents on trumped-up charges and that security forces often torture suspects. That worries some in the sporting world.
''When human rights defenders who justifiably criticize things are illegally locked up, that can't be tolerated in anyway,'' former world rowing champion Christian Schreiber, who heads the German Olympic Committee's athletes' commission, told The Associated Press by telephone from Germany. ''One should be in solidarity with people who stand up for something.''
Athletes should not be blamed for competing in Baku, Schreiber said, but human rights issues should be taken into account when countries bid for major events.
For Azerbaijan, the aim is to use the European Games as a springboard to host other big events in future. Although the country bid unsuccessfully for both the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, officials are adamant the European Games are no consolation prize and have not ruled out another Olympic bid in the future.
''Baku and Azerbaijan will be very well positioned to make a bid for the Olympic Games,'' Hickey said. ''They can run any event in the world after this.''
Azerbaijan is already due to host a string of major sporting events, starting with a Formula One race on the streets of Baku next year, before the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017 and four games of soccer's European Championship in 2020.
In a sign Azerbaijan is confident of hosting more competitions, there is no declared legacy use for the vast athletes' village built for the European Games, capable of hosting more than 7,000 athletes. After the games, it will merely stand empty until more athletes come.
This story has been corrected to show the head of the German Olympic Committee's athletes' commission is Christian Schreiber, not Christoph.