On a day when Netherlands surprisingly pulled out of hosting the 2019 edition, Clegg said the event was “here to stay.
Azerbaijan, an unusual choice for the inaugural event starting in Baku on Friday, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into stadiums as the nation looks to expand its market share of top sports events.
“What we have done is we have created a big bang moment for the European Games,” Clegg, a former chief executive of the British Olympic Association, told Reuters in an interview at the organisation’s headquarters.
“If you are going to have a big bang moment, particularly if you are going to fight your way into a congested sports calendar, then you want to have it for the inaugural event.”
New, state-of the-art stadiums dot the capital of the energy-rich nation on the Caspian sea where some 6,000 athletes, representing 50 European Olympic Committees, will be competing until June 28.
Preparations for the Games, which are not too far removed in size from the summer Olympics, were completed in under three years when Olympic hosts have a seven-year organisation time.
“When we were awarded the Games in December 2012 there was not one sport committed to the programme,” Clegg said referring to initial hesitation over joining the new event.
“We now have 20 sports, we turned away seven sports. Of the 16 Olympic sports, 12 are offering direct or indirect qualification for the (2016) Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.”
“This demonstrates the event is here and it is here to stay,” said Clegg, adding that future European Games would benefit from this work.
“My aspiration was to establish at some stage in the future this event as the pre-eminent multisports continental Games across the whole of the globe. That is where we have moved this event.”
Hours after the interview with Clegg, however, Netherlands surprisingly pulled the plug on their 2019 event, less than a month after being awarded the European Games’s second edition.
Not everything is rosy for Baku either, however, as Azerbaijan’s human rights record has long been in the spotlight and more questions will be asked as the Games get closer.
Amnesty International and other human rights groups have said their officials have also been barred from entering the country, saying the government is clamping down on critics.
“As the COO of an operations committee I am entirely focused on the event,” Clegg said. “There are certain things in my control. I recognise there are some things outside my control. But political questions have to be asked to politicians.”
The big winner, though, even before the Games start, looks to be Azerbaijan as it eyes a possible summer Olympics bid.
“Azerbaijan is capable of delivering very high level major international sport events,” Clegg said. “That was one of their perceived weaknesses when they bid for the (2016 and 2020)Olympics, that they did not have that track record.”
With a string of international events scheduled for the country in the coming years, including Formula One and Euro 2020 matches, Azerbaijan will continue to be on the sports radar.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Ken Ferris and Justin Palmer)