European Games struggle for attention as Belarus hosts

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Shrunken in size and struggling for attention, the European Games open Friday as host Belarus seeks to shed its reputation as one of the continent’s most isolated countries.

Memories of the lavish inaugural event in Azerbaijan four years ago — the opening ceremony alone cost $95 million and starred Lady Gaga — weren’t enough to attract many big-name athletes to Minsk for this year’s event.

There’s no swimming and only two reigning European track champions have entered as stars like Dutch sprinter Dafne Schippers stay home, though gymnastics and track cycling are stronger. The games are down to 10 days from 17 in 2015 and feature 3,667 athletes against nearly 6,000 last time.

For Belarus and its hockey-playing president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 25 years, the attraction is clear. It’s a shop window for a country often in the shadow of its larger neighbor Russia, and could offer a stepping stone to other events. Since 2015, Azerbaijan has held Formula One races and the Europa League soccer final.

“For Belarus, this is a unique opportunity to popularize the country and to show that Belarusians are prepared to host world-class sports events at the highest level,” sports minister Sergei Kovalchuk told state TV on Wednesday.

Lukashenko doubles as president of the Belarusian Olympic Committee and has taken a keen interest.

He was left unimpressed by road-side barriers for security during the games and last week likened the view to “a ghetto,” adding: “We’re not in Syria today, not in Libya, and we’re not in Iraq, so we can’t do this.” Hours later, the interior minister resigned.

When Belarus was given the games in 2016, Lukashenko proposed a frugal $50-million event without pricey new stadiums. Still, costs have risen. Around $72 million was allocated for the games in Belarus’ state budget for 2019 and another $40 million may come from the country’s presidential fund. Foreign visitors, most of them Russians, have bought around 20,000 tickets.

Asia and the Americas have long had continental mini-Olympics, but in Europe the format is new and faces tough opposition. Sports federations have developed their own European championships over decades and guard their revenue jealously.

Track, swimming and cycling were among seven sports which scheduled their European championships together last year. With a shared medal table and TV deals, it was a direct competitor for the fledgling European Games.

For Belarus and the European Games, the trump card is affiliation with the International Olympic Committee. Table tennis, archery and shooting all offer direct qualification from the European Games for next year’s Olympics in Tokyo, while five other sports offer rewards like ranking points which help qualification.

European Games track and field uses a rapid-fire, team format culminating in a staggered mixed relay. However, its big gimmick has quietly been dropped. The “trackathlon” would have been an assault course relay including athletes pulling sleds and parachutes.

After years of doping scandals, Russia is targeting the most medals with a 225-person squad including six Olympic champions such as wrestler Abdulrashid Sadulaev, but gymnastics champ Aliya Mustafina is out injured. Many other countries are taking it sport-by-sport. Britain is one of six which chose to skip track and field competition entirely, but has sent six-time Olympic cycling champ Jason Kenny to race in Minsk velodrome.

The European Games’ long-term future is unclear. The Polish city of Krakow is the only candidate to host in 2023, after Russia dropped plans to bid. Western European nations have generally been wary of the financial burden of hosting, including the Netherlands, which was the original 2019 host but pulled out over cost concerns.

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AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Moscow contributed to this report.

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