Our man in Azerbaijan on a new frontier
Published 15/06/2015 | 02:30
Mention 'Baku' to most Irish people and, at best, they'll stretch to a vague recollection that it hosted the Eurovision a few years ago, in a space-age skyscraper with flames licking around its exterior.
That same 'Crystal Hall' is back on our TV screens, this time as an 18,000-capacity multi-sport arena that looks likely to make memories that will last a lot longer than Jedward.
Among those set to star over the next fortnight is Katie Taylor, who leads a team of 70-plus Irish athletes competing in the inaugural European Games.
With no Olympics, World Cup or European football championships this summer - and the rugby World Cup not starting until mid-September - the capital of Azerbaijan is hosting the world's biggest sporting event this summer.
The European Games were the brainchild of Ireland's Olympic chief Pat Hickey, who believed Europe's lack of a continental multi-sport championship, such as the Asian or Pan-American Games, left European athletes overwhelmed when they finally qualified for the Olympics.
It involves 6,000 athletes from 50 countries in 20 different sports, and the big carrot for athletes like Taylor and badminton medal hopefuls Scott Evans and Sam Magee is that qualification spots for next summer's Olympics are available in 12 of the sports.
However, the busiest Irishman in Azerbaijan is likely to be Baku's 'director of sport' Pierce O'Callaghan (39), from Ashbourne, Co Meath.
Baku is a long way from Tuam, where he was living, but O'Callaghan moved his whole family to the edge of the Caspian Sea in September 2013.
A former international race-walker, he is no stranger to organising major sports events.
O'Callaghan was communications officer for the European Athletics Federation for four years (2006-09) before forming his own consultancy firm (Savvy Sport) and has been involved with the European Games since its conception.
He was originally a volunteer on the committee that did the feasibility study and then helped sell the idea to 20 international sporting federations and the European Olympic Committee.
Finance or venues were not part of his direct remit but he has a staff of 90 in his department alone and things are hectic as the games get under way.
O'Callaghan's role included negotiating all the qualifying standards, getting international federations to agree to grant it Olympic qualifier status and then scheduling all 253 different events over 17 days.
Swimming and athletics are both staging world championships this summer so their events in Baku (an U-19 competition and a division of the European team championship respectively) are relatively low-key.
Four of the other sports are non-Olympic - 3x3 basketball (Ireland has a women's team), beach soccer, karate and sambo wrestling.
But O'Callaghan says "the best of the best in Europe" will compete otherwise, especially in the events that are Olympic qualifiers.
The judo and wrestling are both doubling up as this year's European Championships and, for the latter, that is a big deal because wrestling in Azerbaijan's is accorded Premier League status.
In the lead-up to the opening ceremony, O'Callaghan's job involved confirming final entries, dealing with countries who wanted to make late changes, and ensuring that the venues and 12,000 volunteers were ready.
However, late logistical and diplomatic curve-balls are nothing compared to the nightmare scenario he and his wife Tamara faced in February 2012 when Taillte (now five), the second of their four children, was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
"They told us one day in Crumlin and operated the next," he recalls. "She was given a 50-50 chance of survival and there was talk of chemo every 10 days but the operation was a huge success. They removed the full tumour; it was a miracle really and we were very, very lucky."
Taillte still returns home every three months for a check-up but has had no setbacks and, like her siblings, is being home-schooled by an Irish teacher in Baku.
Her dad has been in the engine-room of a new sporting experiment, that will next move to the Netherlands in 2019, but does the world really need another huge multi-sport event, especially given the massive debts and white-elephant stadia that many recent Olympics have left as their legacy?
O'Callaghan insists Baku 2015 has both merit and sustainability.
"Europe has lost a lot of ground in terms of medals and prestige at the Olympics," he argues. "In Seoul (1988) Europe won 74pc of the medals. Fast-forward 20 years to Beijing and that was down to 37pc.
"Less medals means governments and sponsors are giving athletes less support.
"Every other continent had a continental games to prepare them for the size and scale of the Olympics but Britain, with the Commonwealths, was the only one in Europe.
"Ireland's Olympic performances drop dramatically from world championship level, and one of the big factors is the 'wow' of a major multi-sport event."
Baku, with its massive athletes' village, infrastructure and competition schedule, is designed to inure European athletes from being overwhelmed by the Olympics.
The oil-rich city, known as the 'Dubai of Europe', has a space-age skyline dotted with 'starchitecture' and was already committed to building three new major stadia before this event was mooted.
Its 68,000-capacity national stadium will host the Islamic Games in 2017 and two quarter-finals of Uefa's Euros in 2020, and the city will host a Formula 1 Grand Prix next year.
O'Callaghan stresses that many of their other venues were upgraded or are temporary. Ticket prices, in a country where the average monthly wage equates to €1,000, are pitched at €1 to €5.
"Pat Hickey didn't want it to be a 'mini-Olympics'," O'Callaghan stresses. "He wanted it to work in a city with existing facilities and structures, to not do the white elephant thing."
Azerbaijan only gained independence 23 years ago, yet its capital, whose rich oil fields were once the target for the Nazi advance across Russia, is now one of the most ambitious cities in the world and sees sports tourism as a big earner.
The country is largely Muslim but O'Callaghan describes Baku as "a secular, cosmopolitan society."
"I was expecting it to be a typical Soviet outpost but its modernity is amazing and they're definitely using sport to announce themselves in the world, a bit like we did ourselves," he says.
"Soon after getting independence we had the Tailteann Games in 1924 and 1928, which terrified the International Olympic Committee at the time, who saw it as a threat to them, and remember Dublin also bid to host the 1936 Olympics.
"There's no manual on the shelf on how to run a multi-sport championship. Everything was completely new but thankfully we're in very good shape and ready to go now."