Low-ranked nations get spotlight at Euro GamesBAKU, Azerbaijan - With a vast, brand new stadium and passionate home crowds, European Games athletics offers a near-Olympic experience. There’s just one thing missing - the Olympic athletes.
European Games organizers couldn’t agree on a deal to bring the continent’s best to Azerbaijan for the inaugural games due to scheduling conflicts, so instead the track and field competition featured a motley crew of competitors from Europe’s lowest-ranked athletics nations, countries such as Malta, Albania and Slovakia.
The Olympic Stadium in Baku was less than a third full, but even so, Monday’s crowd of around 20,000 - one of the largest attendances of any athletics meet this year - made for a daunting experience for amateur runners more used to competing at the club level.
“It’s a very big thing. It’s the first time I’ve done a track event of this magnitude,’’ said Alison Edwards of Gibraltar, a British territory whose entire population would fit into the stadium twice over.
Aged 46, Edwards is a marathon runner who was competing in the 5,000 meters for only the second time in her career and also ran the 3,000.
“I was expecting to come last and I didn’t come last in either event, so I’m really pleased,’’ she said.
With no elite British, German or Russian athletes there to hoover up medals, Azerbaijani fans cheered on their local hero Hayle Ibrahimov, an Ethiopian-born runner who cleaned up the middle distance events by winning the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000, all in the space of two days.
The mixed level of athletics competition is a sore point for European Games organizers, who decided that the entire two days of athletics competition would count for just one gold medal, to be awarded to the winning team on points, a reflection of the competition’s weakness compared to the other 19 sports on the program.
That lone gold went to Slovakia, a nation which has never won an Olympic medal in athletics. Despite the lack of stars, the race for gold was fiercely competitive as the Slovakians beat Austria by just half a point.