European games are fighting for their reputation - host Belarus as a problem
Sporting event in Belarus in the criticism: While athletes fight for medals, the European games wrestle for their reputation
In Minsk, Belarus, the second European Games are held - a smaller version of the Olympic Games. The local government wants to make a big party out of it. But the major European sporting event is in the criticism: An organizer has jumped - and Belarus's treatment of human rights is questionable.
Did you know that the European games start on Friday? No? You are not alone with that. Because although they are supposed to be a major European sporting event, the games, which were designed as a smaller version of the Olympic Games for the continent of Europe, under the radar. And that's just one of several issues of the event.
Alexander Lukashenko, President of this year's host country Belarus, is opening today the second European Games in the National Stadium in Minsk. The solemn ceremony will be the prelude to a big party that will boost the country's image and bring its president Lukashenko, who has been described by many as the "last dictator of Europe" in the past, into a more colorful light. Around 4000 athletes will compete in 15 sports for gold, silver and bronze.
Sporting relevant the event is always. Of the 15 sports in which medals will be held in Minsk, nine will serve as qualification competitions for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, "explains Uschi Schmitz, Vice President of the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB). In these sports, a direct qualification is possible, the athletes need then so no further qualifying competitions for Tokyo to deny.
Freedom of opinion and the press in Belarus are still limited
The sporting aspect outweighs the conflicts in the country in the interests of athletes, says Schmitz. This refers to the difficult political situation in dictatorial Belarus. The government ruled the country with a heavy hand. According to the Foreign Office, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, human rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of expression are still limited there.
The human rights organization Amnesty International is making the situation in the country even more drastic. There is "no improvement" over the last few years in terms of respect for and respect for human rights, says Jovanka Worner, a member of the Country Expert Group Belarus and Ukraine at Amnesty.
The problems in the country prompted the German Olympic Sports Confederation last year even to discuss a possible boycott of the games. At the beginning of August 2018, within a few days, 17 Belarusian journalists working for independent media were arrested. DOSB President Alfons Hörmann described the arrests in an interview with "Deutschlandfunk" shortly afterwards as "simply unacceptable".
A good six weeks later, this consideration was then without a fuss back off the table. Hörmann himself justified the step at that time by saying that the event was too sporty to be relevant. In fact, the financing of participation in the European Games probably played a role. Initially, no state subsidy was provided, but Interior Minister Seehofer then told the DOSB that he still benefited from top-level sports funding. So now is a German delegation to participate in the games, including some top athletes such as the three-time canoe Olympic champion Sebastian Brendel are among them.
Belarus was the only candidate for the Games
The question remains why the games were given to an authoritarian country like Belarus. However, according to sport officials, the answer is extremely simple: "There was only one candidate and that was Belarus," says DOSB Vice President Schmitz. Originally it should become the Netherlands, but the German neighbor refused to align, jumped off. Behind it is a bigger conflict.
The willingness of Western nations to host major sporting events has fallen in recent years. This applies to the new format European games as well as for the Olympic Games. The population is increasingly voicing concerns when governments and associations are planning to apply for major sporting events, says Jürgen Mittag, sports scientist at the German Sport University Cologne. The example of Germany alone shows that in many places the population is not at all enthusiastic about the political promise to bring glory and fame to the respective region with events such as the Olympic Games.
So failed the Olympic bid of the city of Munich for the Winter Games in 2022 at the protest of the citizens. Parts of the population in the Berchtesgadener Land, including many farmers, feared for the integrity of nature and brought a referendum that prevented the application. Jürgen Mittag sees a structural problem in the negative attitude of the population. The state is trying, "to increase the approval of citizens to apply for the Olympic Games, for example, by the incentive of infrastructure improvements," says the sports scientist. However, there is often a lack of basic social acceptance of major sporting events.
European games have a reputation problem
That the citizens seem to have less and less desire for major sporting events, is one thing. In the European games is added that they lack the awareness. So far they are under the public radar. Even in the sports world, they are far from being known for other continental games such as the Commonwealth Games or the Pan American Games. This removes an important, monetary and imagistic incentive for nations to want to host European games in their own country.
And also "historically" the young games have to carry a ballast. They were a project of the then head of the European Olympic Committee (EOC) Patrick Hickey, who wanted to introduce continental games after the Olympic model in Europe. Hickey initially sat down heavily for a award of the 2015 Games to Azerbaijan. In 2019 he wanted to award the games to Russia - to integrate the Russian sport after the huge state doping affair, in the course of which, inter alia, Russian athletes were banned for the 2016 Olympic Games, again completely integrated into world sports.
However, the Russian government did not want the games at all because they saw themselves well occupied with the FIFA World Cup 2018 and other events. The Brazilian judiciary then put an end to Hickey's career. He was arrested in Brazil in August 2016 on suspicion of illegal trade in Olympic tickets at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and soon after resigned all his posts.
In Minsk, Patrick Hickey will be no more than a side note when it comes to medals for the many thousands of athletes. For the German team it should be the minimum goal to repeat the fourth place in the medal table of Baku 2015. Especially in the sports table tennis and canoe, the DOSB delegation has a good chance to calculate gold medals.