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  • Is Baku Ready for 2024? -- Op Ed


    (ATR) Baku ponders an Olympic bid after the European Games success -- but it still may not be ready to host the big kahuna.

    The opening ceremony was a sea of color. (ATR)
    About 6,000 athletes in 20 sports paraded in and out of the Azerbaijan capital for 17 days in June. It was the biggest multi-sport event to be held in the country and the first-ever European Games. It was a very public test of the readiness of Baku and its ability to manage and execute something bigger than the small to midsize world championships that it has hosted in the past.

    Our experience in Baku last month largely bears out the praise the city has received. Without exception, the competition program took place on schedule and without drama. The venues for the most part were new and deemed to be of Olympic caliber. The athletes village got good marks, the Spartan-like media village needed a bit more attention. Transport ran on time. Just like clockwork.

    And now, a bit like clockwork, comes talk about whether Baku should jump into the race for the 2024 Olympics. After all, what’s the only thing that could top hosting the inaugural European Games?

    Baku has been here before. Two previous bids for 2012 and 2016 that got nowhere. If Azerbaijan thought it could take a bite of the Olympic apple 10 years ago, imagine how much the European Games will have boosted confidence among the country’s decision-makers. Fueling the enthusiasm is European Olympic Committees President Patrick Hickey, who declared last weekend that Baku was capable of making a bid for the Olympics. Spyros Capralos, president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee and head of the EOC commission for Baku, concurred at the same press conference. He should know what it takes to host an Olympics after serving as a top executive for Athens 2004.

    As Hickey also points out, there is a difference between bidding and winning.

    Baku's flame towers preside over the skyline. (ATR)
    While Baku sometimes has been called the Paris of the East, the comparisons don’t really stack up in a head-to-head with Paris verite, which is currently the favorite. Paris and the rest of the 2024 field so far -- Boston, Budapest and Rome -- offer some basics for their Olympic bids that Baku will be challenged to improve upon.

    First is a vibrant and thriving tourism industry. The charms of each of those cities lures millions of visitors each year. Paris is the out and out winner with 16 million visitors a year (85 million a year to France). Figures from the World Bank show two million people visited Azerbaijan in 2014.

    This eastern edge of Europe is not the easiest to reach. Air travel is the only practical way for most visitors to reach Baku. Flights from cities such as Rome, Frankfurt or Paris still take nearly 5 hours to get there. And it’s not an impulse destination. Outmoded visa procedures do not encourage travelers.

    On the plus side for Baku is the newly finished international airport, which rivals many midsize airports in the world and does look entirely Olympic-worthy. While daily flights come from European hubs and now there is direct service from Baku to New York City, the numbers of tourists those flights bring in don’t add up to the figures of more popular European destinations.

    With fewer tourists, there are fewer hotels. The European Games strained the existing inventory of 10,000 rooms to its maximum for the weekend of opening ceremony June 12. Four times that number will be needed across the 17 days of the Olympic Games. Azerbaijan minister of youth and sports Azad Rahimov suggests temporary hotels could cure the deficit with the Olympics come to town. Wrestling with the idea of adding as many as 30,000 new hotel rooms challenges notions of sustainability. While Baku hotels might have been packed for the first weekend of the European Games, such was not the case once the event got underway, with rooms easy to book at hotels throughout the city.

    Baku's athlete village (ATR)
    Empty hotel rooms also meant an absence of European spectators who might’ve provided some international color and atmosphere. That joyfulness was sorely lacking outside the venues and in the fabulous parklands that meander along the Caspian Sea, a venue that even Paris might envy. Each night during the games, except for opening and closing ceremony when fireworks were the big draw, this impressive public space was empty.

    The European Games was a new experience for the Azeri people, right down to buying tickets for sports events, which customarily have been free in Azerbaijan. How to handle the sale of tickets for an Olympics could be well out of the range of expertise gathered from the European Games. Azerbaijan sports fans could use more experience in the grandstands, cheering instead of jeering, as was sometimes the case when decisions went against the home team in Baku.

    Nonetheless, Baku is a city with enormous potential as a host for international sports events. On the horizon are the 2017 Islamic Games and Formula 1 in 2016. Baku hosted the boxing world championships and seems to be in a good position to secure other world championships. The 2023 IAAF World Championships could be a possibility. The Youth Olympic Games are another. All these events are of a scale that can be accommodated by the current tourism infrastructure of Baku.

    Flush with confidence from the European Games, government leaders in Azerbaijan may still think that experience is good enough to be a successful host of the Olympics. It’s only just a start. After two inadequate bids, a new effort for 2024 may prove to be no different. And entering a field of candidates with such imposing advantages could saddle Baku with an image as perennial contender with no hope of winning.

    Baku's Olympic Stadium (ATR)
    Petroleum-rich for 150 years, Azerbaijan clearly has the means to build the venues needed for the Olympics based on what was done for the European Games. That seems to be unquestioned. So presumptuous are the aspirations of Azerbaijan that the new national stadium is called Olympic Stadium.

    But it will take more than venues if Azerbaijan really wants to bid for the Olympics and win. The country needs to take its time to erase the doubts that will encumber an Olympic bid right now. It has to find a way to open its doors to the rest of the world and give the visitors a decent place to sleep while in Baku. More venues will need to be built. Azeri athletes must be able to compete at world-class levels in sports besides boxing, wrestling and judo.
    All of this takes time, years to make happen. The deadline to file for 2024 is but two months away.

    The folly of another failed bid -- or a long view that delivers a winning strategy -- seems to be the question facing Baku as it comes to grips with the reality of Olympic dreams.

    Written by Ed Hula

    Homepage Photo: Getty Images

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