Rebecca Camilleri of Malta competes during the women's long jump event at the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, Monday, June 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Dmitry Lovetsky
June 22, 2015

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) With a vast, brand new stadium and passionate home crowds, European Games athletics offers a near-Olympic experience. There's just one thing missing - the Olympic athletes.

European Games organizers couldn't agree a deal to bring the continent's best to Azerbaijan for the inaugural games due to scheduling conflicts, so instead the track and field competition featured a motley crew of competitors from Europe's lowest-ranked athletics nations, countries such as Malta, Albania and Slovakia.

The Olympic Stadium in Baku was less than a third full, but even so, Monday's crowd of around 20,000 - one of the largest attendances of any athletics meet this year - made for a daunting experience for amateur runners more used to competing in club competitions.

''It's a very big thing. It's the first time I do a track event of this magnitude,'' said Alison Edwards of Gibraltar, a British territory whose entire population would fit into the stadium twice over.

Aged 46, Edwards is a marathon runner who was competing in the 5,000 meters for only the second time in her career and also ran the 3,000.

''I was expecting to come last and I didn't come last in either event, so I'm really pleased,'' she said.

With no elite British, German or Russian athletes there to hoover up medals, Azerbaijani fans cheered on their local hero Hayle Ibrahimov, an Ethiopian-born runner who cleaned up the middle distance events by winning the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000, all in the space of two days.

''It's not impossible, but (running) three times is very hard,'' said Ibrahimov, one of the few Olympic-standard athletes competing at the games, who won two of his races by more than 10 seconds. ''I want to run good, for Azerbaijan, and for me, and for the people.''

The mixed level of athletics competition is a sore point for European Games organizers, who decided that the entire two days of athletics competition would count for just one gold medal, to be awarded to the winning team on points, in reflection of the competition's weakness compared to the other 19 sports on the program.

That lone gold went to Slovakia, a nation which has never won an Olympic medal in athletics. Despite the lack of star names, the race for gold was fiercely competitive as the Slovakians beat Austria by just half a point following the final men's 4x400 relay.

''Regarding the future, if we had the best athletes here in Europe and the equivalent of the European championship then of course we would be giving medals to each individual athlete,'' the games' chief operating officer Simon Clegg said Monday.

The problem for organizers has been to overcome the territorial instincts of bosses in what are traditionally the two biggest Olympic events, athletics and swimming. Both sports have powerful federations which are fiercely protective of their own European championships and the revenue they produce.

A compromise was struck - aquatics at the European Games would be for under-18s only, while the athletics competition would actually be the fourth tier of the European team championships. The continent's big names, meanwhile, were away Saturday and Sunday competing for the top-level team title in Russia, in front of a much smaller crowd than attended in Azerbaijan.

For the next edition of the European Games in 2019, however, organizers hope to bring in top-level athletics and swimming, hoping that the other 18 sports on the program in Azerbaijan have built an attractive brand.

Regardless of the disputes behind the scenes, the first European Games athletics event has offered a rare competitive thrill to the continent's amateurs and some who are just keen to compete, even if that means taking on an odd mix of events.

One Maltese athlete threw the hammer and ran the 4x100 relay in the same day, while Austria entered a 200-meter runner who is better known as an Olympic bobsledder - a kind of ''Cool Runnings'' in reverse.

However, the most versatile of all was 17-year-old Maria Gomez Cabeza of the tiny Pyrenees mountain nation of Andorra. In the space of two days, she managed to compete in the pole vault, shot put, 4x100 and 4x400.

''Andorra is a small country, so there are not enough people to do all of (the events),'' she says. ''I finished very tired, but you feel better when you do it all.''

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