Belarus president: Country ready to host 2019 European Games

MINSK, Belarus (AP) The capital of Belarus was chosen Friday to host the 2019 European Games, ending more than a year of uncertainty after the previous host pulled out.

The European Olympic Committee's general assembly approved the choice of Minsk, which was the only candidate to stage the second edition of the multi-sport event.

The motion passed easily, despite calls led by the Danish Olympic Committee to postpone the decision, arguing there was a lack of clarity over financing.

''Belarus is not a superpower but we pay a lot of attention to sports,'' President Alexander Lukashenko told the assembly. ''You can count on Belarus.''

Lukashenko also urged more events from the European Games to be made qualifiers for the Olympics in order to attract more top athletes and fans after some leading competitors opted to skip the inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, last year.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic, is likely to face criticism over its human rights record. The country is also currently in recession, raising concerns over the cost of hosting the games. Belarusian sports have also been dogged by doping cases.

The 2019 European Games were originally scheduled to take place in the Netherlands, which pulled out last year citing financial reasons.

Russia was the EOC's preferred backup choice, but showed little interest even before the International Olympic Committee said it was not an appropriate host because of doping scandals.

Last year's games in Baku were hounded by controversies over human rights and lavish spending. Launched as an equivalent to long-established continental events, such as the Asian Games and Pan American Games, the European Games cost several billion dollars, with many new venues built. The opening ceremony in Baku alone had a price tag of $95 million, Azerbaijan's sports minister said at the time.

Minsk would likely need to spend far less to host the games, having built or refurbished many sports venues in recent years. The Belarusian capital hosted the world track cycling championships in 2013 and world ice hockey championships a year later.

Previously, Belarus had said it would only host the games on the condition it received financial support, a question which was not resolved Friday by the EOC.

''Money is the main issue here. The second European Games will require huge investments,'' Belarus Olympic Committee deputy president Maxim Ryzhenkov said Wednesday. ''Belarus invites the International Olympic Committee and EOC to assume a part of the expenses.''

Belarus has retained much of the economic and political structure from Soviet times, and Lukashenko has regularly been criticized by human rights groups over jailed political opponents and the country's use of the death penalty.

The country also has a record of doping in ice hockey, weightlifting and track and field. The head of the national track federation served a doping ban during his career as an athlete.

The Minsk assembly took place without EOC president Patrick Hickey, who is unable to leave Brazil since he was arrested in August during the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on ticket scalping charges.

Lukashenko said there was ''no proof'' Hickey had done anything wrong, while acting EOC president Janez Kocijancic said he was concerned for Hickey's health.

''His health is deteriorating. He has problems with the heart. The surgeons and doctors suggest that he should be treated in Ireland,'' Kocijancic said. ''Patrick Hickey deserves much better treatment, he deserves the opportunity to prove his innocence and he must be returned home to improve his health.''

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