European Games: Regrettable incidents mar build-up to Baku

Sport, politics and human rights cannot be separated

The staging of a major sports event is always about much more than sport. For the Romans the bread and circuses, a means of appeasing the disgruntled masses. In more recent times it has tended to be less about the domestic audience and more about branding states internationally, a useful, albeit prohibitively expensive, way for autocrats to polish up their international credentials – from Hitler’s appropriation of the Olympic rings at the 1936 Berlin Games, to the $51 billion spent by Putin on the Sochi Winter Olympics, to the hundreds of billions being sunk into the desert to make Qatar ready for the 2022 World Cup. Such events, all those involved must understand, are as much about politics as sport.

It was fortuitous for the European Olympic Committee – and most particularly the driving force of the Baku European Games, Irish International Olympic Committee member Pat Hickey – that their interest in a new games to rival the the Asian Games and Pan-American Games should coincide with those of Azerbaijan's self-promoting, sports-mad President Ilham Aliyev. Something to cap his hosting of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest and promote his interest in a future full Olympics.

But let us not pretend that, in accepting his hospitality – the expenses of all 6,000 athletes are being covered by Baku while the total costs are put at up to €9 billion – there is no political quid pro quo on offer, at a minimum the conferring a hefty dollop of political respectability. It is simply not acceptable then for the British Olympic Association chief executive, Bill Sweeney, to dismiss human rights concerns with the line "We are here purely for the sports reasons and not political reasons." Or for the Baku Games' chief operating officer Simon Clegg to suggest that questions concerning the ban on Amnesty International observers attending are "political questions that need to be directed to the politicians".

Tell that to Leyla Yunus, the human rights activist, arrested in July last year five days after calling for a boycott of the Games. Or the 100 or so journalists and human rights defenders identified by international NGO s as having been jailed by Aliyev's regime for no reason other than expressing their views.


Pat Hickey, we are told, will raise such regrettable incidents as the refusal of credentials to the Guardian privately with the authorities. In public we will no doubt just hear of how enlightened and generous Azerbaijan’s ruler is. It would be a pity, after all, to cast a pall over the “non-political” sport.