Baku Letter: Top-class athletics conspicuous by absence

Sonia O’Sullivan agrees European Games are lacking top-level track and field events

There is no limit to our welcoming into the Kingdom of Azerbaijan. Such is their lavish consideration of our needs that they built the Baku Sports Hall just a short stroll down the Seaside Boulevard from the Crystal Hall.

This was clearly in anticipation of the these two venues being the most likely stages for the Irish medal winners, which is exactly the way things are working out.

Just before lunchtime here yesterday, the Irish boxers secured their first medal at Crystal Hall, Brendan Irvine guaranteeing himself at least bronze. Later, down at the Baku Sports Hall, our number one badminton seed Scott Evans got his campaign off to a resounding start, already looking like the medal contender he's being billed as. Chloe and Sam Magee are also top seeds in the mixed doubles, and every bit as intent on living up to their billing too.

So, a bit like the old Silk Trail, this will be the Irish medal trail for the rest of the week, a mini caravan of journalists, supporters and invited guests, strolling back and forth, from the Crystal Hall to the Baku Sports Hall, enjoying the warm breeze that comes laughing in off the Caspian Sea.


Panoramic views

Baku started out as a port, then moved inland, and the Seaside Boulevard offers perfectly panoramic views of both. The Irish medal trail takes about 25 minutes and there are plenty of spectacular sights along the way, starting with the State Flag Square, just outside Crystal Hall, where one of the biggest flags in Europe hangs off a 162-metre high pole.

Then, past the giant Ferris wheel, there is Little Venice, which is exactly what it sounds like: a mini replica of the Italian waterfront town, which since the 1960s, has been a favourite of the Baku glitterati, who like to idle the evenings away in the mini gondolas that wave through channels of blue water, reflecting the weeping willows alongside.

Not very long ago the Seaside Boulevard had become an abominable, oil-laded strip, with old ships wrecks and debris strewn around in disarray.

Then, in the middle of the last century, the Soviet Union gave it a European makeover, not necessarily modelled on places like Nice, yet every bit as inviting. It stretches 14km in all, and just past the Baku Sports Hall is the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, another of those buildings that have to be seen to be believed.

One instantly recognisable face strolling down the Irish medal trail yesterday was Sonia O'Sullivan, making her way from Crystal Hall, after watching Irish boxer Ceire Smith lose a split decision to the Russian Saiana Sagataeva, to the Baku Sports Hall, where Evans was about to start his first match. O'Sullivan is in Baku as a guest of Pat Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committee. It's easy to tell from the look on her face just how much the Kingdom of Azerbaijan has been welcoming her, too.

Yet we quickly agreed that, for all Baku had to offer, one thing was definitely missing: a properly competitive programme of athletics. Here, the two-day track and field competition – a fourth division league contest between the bottom nations of the continent – passed off with less than a ripple of anticipation, and not just because there was no Irish medal interest.

O’Sullivan sat inside Baku’s new €540 million Olympic Stadium to watch Sunday’s events, mostly out of curiosity, and that simply reinforced her belief that if these games are to have a future, elite athletics will have to find a way in.

“From what I’ve seen, I think the games definitely needs athletics. But I also think athletics would want to be here. And I think there’s a place for it. There has to be some way of working it out, some sort of compromise.

Slightly dead

The European Team Championships is slightly dead, anyway, so there should be some way of bringing more of that to these games.

“And you can’t provide a top-class stadium like they have here without top-class athletics. So I think the European Athletics Federation should look at some sort of compromise, maybe invite the top eight countries in Europe, make it exclusive like that, so that athletes would want to come here, not want to miss out, and so see the importance of it.”

Because from what O’Sullivan has seen in the other 19 sports – particularly in boxing, cycling and gymnastics – the quality of competition is not just impressively high enough to ensure the success of these games in the long term, but also to ensure more Irish athletes build towards Olympic success in the short term.

“I think the longer I’ve been here, the more I appreciate the high standard in all the other sports. It’s definitely a way of bridging a gap between a European Championships, and a World Championships, and then the Olympics.

“It’s definitely somewhere in between. When athletes have a chance to win a medal, or better their career, they will always improve.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics