The first wave of Irish athletes selected for the inaugural European Games comes to 36 with more names promised in the coming weeks. Katie Taylor heads the list of top Irish athletes with Scott Evans, now inside the top 25 badminton players in the world and Triathlete, Aileen Reid, who finished 2014 ranked eight in the world, also committing for what has been dubbed the mini Olympics.
Yesterday appeared to be a day of announcements with Britain selecting 153 athletes for what may be the hit sports event of the summer in Baku, or not. On the back of Britain’s announcement BT Sport has announced it will televise the Games between June 12-28th, although the British swimming federation have a very definite take on what the event is or should be. Their 24 selected swimmers are all between 14 and 18 years old.
Agreements have been signed in Ireland with Setanta Sports, the United States, Canada, Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Latin America and the Arab world, as well as with a host of other European broadcasters. But there is still no television deal with Russia.
Driven by Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) president Pat Hickey, who is also president of the European Olympic Committee (EOC), the European Games is a multi-sport event for athletes from all over the continent and will be held every four years.
The OCI has selected athletes from 10 sports in the first tranche of entries with the 36 names likely to rise to over 60 athletes across 13 sports as selections in men’s boxing, cycling, canoeing and gymnastics have still to come.
Both Olympic bronze medallists light flyweight Paddy Barnes and bantamweight Michael Conlan, who secured their qualification for Rio last week, are expected to be among a strong Irish boxing team.
Over 6,000 athletes are likely to compete in what the Olympic movement hopes to build into an event that rivals the Asian or Pan-American Games.
“Baku is important for me. It’s the first time they have been staged and going away with a big Irish Team is a great thing to experience,” says Scott Evans, who recently cracked the top 25 in the world in Badminton, the first Irish player to do so. “In badminton only myself and Chloe (Magee) have experienced an Olympic games. For others to experience something like that, they can only improve.
“I know the Asian Games are huge. I can’t see why the European Games can’t get as big. I see a huge future in it especially for the smaller sports. You have the best athletes going to it.
“It’s also good to have something like the Olympic Games that is not the Olympic Games. Then when the athletes go to the Olympic Games everything isn’t new to them.”
Evans is in the fortunate position of now playing in the top tournaments around the world and from May of this year he will begin his bid for Rio qualification.
His ranking come May 1st, 2016, will determine whether he gains Olympic qualification or not. But he is playing the major events and like other sports such as tennis, getting into a first or second round in a tournament such Wimbledon or Roland Garros provides more points than winning lower level European events.
The Baku Games are not yet in the Olympic qualification cycle, but again they are expected to be part of it in future events.
“I want a medal at the European Games and of course qualify for Rio,” says Evans. “If I stay in the top 25, which is a big achievement and something I have worked towards, I will qualify for all of the majors in Badminton. To be part of that level is exactly where I want to be.”
From next week only four European players will have a higher ranking than the Irish player, three from Denmark and one from Germany. As yet the final list of athletes for Baku from other countries is not available. But the chance of earning one of the first medals from the first European Games is a carrot.
“I’m still waiting to see the opposition,” he says. “But no matter what, it’s going to be strong opposition. But I would expect to be one of the top seeds there. It’s great athletes like Katie Taylor is going, great for her and her sport and great for the Baku Games. I think it is going to be like a mini Olympics.”