In Review

European Games: sambo, sport and politics in Baku

Olympic warm-up event in Azerbaijan overshadowed by human rights allegations

Stand down the Twitter mobs - sambo isn't what you think. It's a sport, admittedly not one you're likely to see on primetime Sky Sports any day soon. Developed as a combat sport by the Soviet Union's Red Army in the 1920s, it combines judo, ju jitsu and wrestling.

Sounds like a blast, and if you want to see sambo in action, tune into the inaugural European Games that start today in Baku. That's the capital of Azerbaijan for the geographically-challenged.

It might not sound like the most exciting of athletic meets, but it's one that Great Britain is taking seriously all the same with the BBC reporting that the British team contains the "largest overseas contingent since the 2008 Beijing Olympics".

It's not hard to understand why. The 2016 Olympics begin in just over a year and for many of Europe's top athletes – particularly those in non-mainstream sports – the European Games represent a good opportunity to measure their progress and weigh up their rivals.

Approximately 6,000 athletes from 50 European countries will compete in the Games between 12 and 28 June. The event is similar in format to the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, featuring 20 sports including gymnastics, rowing, fencing, shooting and swimming.

Of the sports on offer, 16 are Olympic disciplines with karate, basketball 3x3, beach soccer and sambo the only exceptions. The BBC says there will be 253 medal events and "opportunities in 12 sports to qualify for next year's Olympics in Rio".

Team GB comprises 160 athletes who will compete in 13 sports, although, alas, sambo isn't one of them. Among the British competitors will be several who tasted success at the 2012 London Olympics – gold medal boxer Nicola Adams, judo silver medallist Gemma Gibbons and Ed McKeever, who took gold in the sprint canoeing.

Team GB will not feature any track and field athletes or cyclists, absences which are sure to have a negative impact on the popularity of BT Sport's coverage of the Games. But a much bigger problem for the image of the Games is the host nation's human rights record and its attitude to any criticism of it.

The country is governed by the New Azerbaijan Party, which has been in power since 1995. President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father in 2003 and has in recent years been condemned by the EU, US, and rights organisations for, says the BBC, "detaining political prisoners, widespread corruption and election fraud".

Amnesty has been an outspoken critic of the Aliyev regime, as has Human Rights Watch, which says that Azerbaijan "is experiencing one of its worst human rights crises in over two decades since its independence" and that the president is orchestrating a "relentless and systematic crackdown" against his opponents.

The Guardian claims it has been banned from covering the Games because of its role in exposing Azerbaijan's "crackdown" while the United Nations has also been critical of the country's governance.

But none of this appears to have bothered the European Olympic Committee. "It is not the EOC's place to challenge or pass judgment on the legal or political processes of a sovereign nation," they said in statement in response to concerns raised by human rights groups. "Like all sports organisations, we must operate within existing political contexts."

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