Feb 6 (Reuters) - The inaugural European Games this year will convince sceptics of their rightful place on the sports calendar and the event will eventually attract top track and field athletes and swimmers missing this time, officials said on Friday.
The first such Games for Europe, which unlike other continents did not have a continental event like the Asian or Pan-American Games, will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan from June 12-28.
More than 6,000 athletes will be competing in 20 sports, 11 of which are offering direct or indirect qualification for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
But they have not managed to attract Europe’s top swimmers or track and field athletes, a major drawback for any multi-sports event, with both sports among the most popular but represented at a low level in Baku.
“When we got permission to do this feasibility study for the European Games six or eight years ago, we had many laughers and jokers,” said Patrick Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committees (EOC) in a conference call.
“They said it would never happen.”
The EOC could not have hoped for a better inaugural host with energy-rich Azerbaijan having the cash to raise the profile of the Games and the country eager to position itself as an efficient host of major sports events.
“We are very happy with our situation at the moment,” said Hickey. “We had a maximum of 10 sports in our original idea. We jumped form 10 to 20 and even refused six sports.”
“We are fully aware that we do not have (the top) track and field and swimming athletes. Next Games we will see the involvement of the top sports as well.”
The EOC has yet to name a second host city but Hickey said candidates were in talks.
The future of the European Games hinges on Baku in terms of commercial success and broadcasting.
Games chief operating officer Simon Clegg said deals with 33 territories had agreed to beam an average of five hours of television pictures per day, including ceremonies and daily highlights.
“We will have broadcasting across all Olympic continental bases,” Clegg said, adding that a deal with a U.S. broadcaster was also imminent.
Azerbaijan has also offered assurances for Armenian athletes competing at the Games despite the ongoing conflict over a disputed territory between the two countries, Hickey said.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have renewed fighting along their border and around the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Violence has intensified since the start of this year, underlining the risk of broader conflict in the South Caucasus, a region criss-crossed by oil and gas pipelines. (Editing by Ed Osmond)