Wednesday

20th Mar 2019

Opinion

Baku Games: the politics of sport

  • Khadija Ismayilova is known for her work on corruption in Aliyev's family (Photo: alde.eu)

Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country nestled between Russia and Iran, is hosting the first-ever European Games.

The mini-Olympics in Baku are a pet project of its autocratic president, Ilham Aliyev.

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He’s also the president of the National Olympic Committee.

He reportedly invested $10 billion in the infrastructure that will host 6,000 athletes from 50 nations, competing in 20 sports, starting this weekend.

Some 1,300 international journalists are coming to cover the event.

The European Olympic Committees (EOC), the organisation regulating the Games, has praised Azerbaijan for being well prepared.

EOC president Patrick Hickey called it a “new, dynamic country”, whose hosting of the inaugural competition will set the tone for future Games.

But unless the EOC takes off its rose-tinted glasses, the Games, and, more broadly, the legacy of the Olympic movement, will suffer.

Unless it stops praising Aliyev even as he tramples on people’s rights, it will miss a chance to make a positive impact.

Politics of sport

The EOC has said sports and politics don’t mix, that it’s not its job to “pass judgement on the legal or political processes of a sovereign nation”.

But what of the Olympic Charter, the EOC’s governing document, by which Azerbaijan, as host country of the European Games, is bound?

The charter says the Games' organisers are obliged to ensure "fullest coverage” by “different media”.

If Azerbaijan doesn’t release the eight journalists it’s jailed for political motives, it cannot fulfill its charter obligation on media pluralism.

Calling on Azerbaijan to fulfill obligations isn’t politics, it’s adhering to principles.

Among those imprisoned is the country’s leading investigative reporter, Khadija Ismayilova.

She works on corruption in the highest echelons of power, including the presidential family.

She’s been in custody for six months on trumped-up charges, such as illegal business deals, tax evasion, and abuse of power - a classic formula for silencing critics.

Meanwhile, if one speaks of using the Games for political purposes, then, unlike the EOC, Aliyev is doing just that.

He understands the value of sports for international PR.

He poses in big photo opportunities, which cement his authority. Politics and sports don’t mix? Not in his book.

The European Games could be his rehearsal for an Olympic bid in 2024, after Baku’s 2016 and 2020 bids failed.

Baku is also to host Formula 1’s grand prix in July 2016 and to co-host Uefa’s 2020 European Football Championship.

Opening up?

The EOC’s claim, that awarding Azerbaijan the chance to host this prestigious event will help to open up the country, doesn’t reflect reality.

In fact, the recent, and severe, crackdown on free speech in Azerbaijan began shortly after it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012.

Journalists and rights activists tried to use the contest to prompt reform.

They exposed Eurovision-related corruption, Eurovision-related demolitions of people’s homes. All of them are now in jail.

Aliyev learned his lesson: put critics behind bars, shut down their organisations, push the rest into exile.

Hikmat Hajiyev, a spokesman for the Azerbaijani foreign ministry, said in April: “Local and foreign media, which will cover the first European Games, [will be able] to freely carry out their activity”.

He added, however: “[Press] accreditation can be cancelled if foreign media representatives carry out any activity against the territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of Azerbaijan”.

In other words, press can do sports but not politics.

Rubbing shoulders

EOC leaders are currently rubbing shoulders with Aliyev.

It's a fleeting chance to call for the release of the imprisoned journalists: Khadija Ismayilova, Nijat Aliyev, Hilal Mamedov, Araz Guliyev, Tofiq Yaqublu, Parviz Hashimli, Rauf Mirkadyrov, and Seymur Hazi.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has described the European Games the “missing fifth ring” of the Olympic movement.

But if the EOC leadership fails to call out Azerbaijan on its trampling of Olympic principles, Baku 2015 will go down as the Games of lost opportunities.

Nina Ognianova is the Europe and Central Asia co-ordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists

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