Lady Gaga helps open Euro­pean Games

The China Post - - SPORTS - BY JAMES ELLING­WORTH

The first Euro­pean Games opened in Azer­bai­jan on Fri­day with an ex­trav­a­gant open­ing cer­e­mony fea­tur­ing Lady Gaga, although even her star power failed to dis­pel some of the con­cerns hang­ing over the event.

The games in the oil- rich na­tion’s cap­i­tal Baku have be­come a fo­cal point for crit­i­cism Azer­bai­jan’s hu­man rights record, and wor­ries over the com­pe­ti­tion’s sport­ing cred­i­bil­ity.

They were opened by the coun­try’s Pres­i­dent Il­ham Aliyev, who has held power since 2003 and whose regime has been ac­cused of jail­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents on trumped-up charges.

The cer­e­mony fea­tured all the pomp of an Olympic open­ing as Aliyev en­tered with a flam­ing torch at the start of an eclec­tic show com­bin­ing Greek myth, a gi­ant float­ing pomegranate and a video mes­sage from physi­cists at the Switzer­land-based CERN re­search cen­ter.

“This spec­tac­u­lar cel­e­bra­tion is the victory of in­de­pen­dent Azer­bai­jan and each Azer­bai­jani cit­i­zen,” said Aliyev’s wife Mehriban Aliyeva, who heads the or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee for the games. “Dear ath­letes, th­ese games are for you.”

The venue for the ex­trav­a­ganza was Baku’s 68,000-ca­pac­ity Olympic Sta­dium, whose walls lit up in the colors of the Azer­bai­jani flag dur­ing a cer­e­mony steeped in na­tion­al­ism, in­clud­ing the boo­ing of the del­e­ga­tion from tra­di­tional ri­val Ar­me­nia.

That sta­dium will also il­lus­trate the Euro­pean Games’ strug­gles to es­tab­lish it­self as a new ma­jor sports event when it hosts a lowlevel track and field com­pe­ti­tion. Many sports will be of near-Olympic stan­dard, es­pe­cially com­bat events like boxing and wrestling, but oth­ers like ath­let­ics and swim­ming will not fea­ture star names.

An el­e­ment of tragedy also hung over the open­ing af­ter a 15-yearold Aus­trian swim­mer was left with se­ri­ous spinal in­juries when she was hit by a bus while walk­ing in the ath­letes’ vil­lage on Thurs­day. Two team­mates re­ceived less se­ri­ous in­juries.

The games are the brain­child of the Euro­pean Olympic Com­mit­tees and the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pres­i­dent Pa­trick Hickey.

“We are wit­ness­ing, we are cre­at­ing a land­mark mo­ment in Euro­pean sport,” he said.

Hickey did not men­tion hu­man rights, although he said “sport has a unique power to ef­fect pos­i­tive change” in so­ci­ety.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan were among the world lead­ers in at­ten­dance.

Lady Gaga’s per­for­mance was kept a se­cret un­til part-way through the cer­e­mony, with the Amer­i­can singer per­form­ing John Len­non’s song “Imag­ine” while play­ing a pi­ano cov­ered in flow­ers. The singer, who wore a sim­ple white smock as op­posed to one of her sig­na­ture ec­cen­tric out­fits, was given a rap­tur- ous re­cep­tion for her per­for­mance, which in­cluded an un­usu­ally fullthroated ren­di­tion of the fi­nal verse of Len­non’s low-key clas­sic.

“I’m ex­tremely hon­ored to be play­ing at the open­ing cer­e­mony in Baku, and to be cel­e­brat­ing all of the amaz­ing ath­letes who will com­pete in the Euro­pean Games in this beau­ti­ful city,” she said in com­ments re­leased by or­ga­niz­ers.

Un­der pres­sure from hu­man rights ac­tivists, Azer­bai­jan’s gov­ern­ment has de­manded that pol­i­tics and sport be kept sep­a­rate dur­ing the games. How­ever, pol­i­tics in­truded into the cer­e­mony when the ath­letes from Ar­me­nia, Azer­bai­jan’s tra­di­tional ri­val, were roundly booed by the crowd, who also shouted “Azer­bai­jan!”

Azer­bai­jan’s Nagorno-Karabakh re­gion and some ad­ja­cent ter­ri­tory have been un­der the con­trol of Ar­me­nian sol­diers and lo­cal Ar­me­nian forces since a 1994 cease-fire that ended a six-year war.

Other teams were warmly wel­comed, with Azer­bai­jan’s neigh­bor Turkey and fel­low ex-Soviet states Ukraine and Rus­sia re­ceiv­ing some of the loud­est cheers — apart from the roar re­served for the host na­tion’s team.

“I know I have made every­body — all my friends and fam­ily back home — re­ally, re­ally happy and I am hon­ored my­self,” Olympic boxing cham­pion Ni­cola Adams told The As­so­ci­ated Press ear­lier Fri­day as she pre­pared to be Bri­tain’s flag­bearer at the cer­e­mony. “It’s an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity and it is a once in a life­time thing.”

The cer­e­mony saw ath­letes from Kosovo pa­rade for the first time un­der their own flag at a ma­jor games, as one of the 50 na­tions which have sent ath­letes to com­pete across 20 sports.

Protests against Azer­bai­jan’s hu­man rights record took place in cities around the world Fri­day, although in Baku, where demon­stra­tions are heav­ily re­stricted, op­po­si­tion groups did not an­nounce any protests ahead of the open­ing cer­e­mony.

The day be­fore, jailed jour­nal­ist Khadija Is­may­ilova crit­i­cized Azer­bai­jan’s gov­ern­ment, writ­ing that the coun­try was in a “hu­man rights cri­sis” and be­set by high­level cor­rup­tion.

“Things have never been worse,” said Is­may­ilova’s let­ter, re­leased by the PEN or­ga­ni­za­tion, which said it had been smug­gled out of pri­son in pieces.

The games run un­til June 28.

AP

U.S. singer Lady Gaga ges­tures dur­ing the open­ing cer­e­mony of the 2015 Euro­pean Games in Baku, Azer­bai­jan on Fri­day, June 12.

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