European Games triumph for Russia, Azerbaijan and…China

Review of the week: 22 June – 28 June 2015

Alia Mustafina 2011

There was much ado in Baku where the first ever European Games were a tremendous success. The most cheers were reserved for the Russian team, which won a startling 79 gold medals, 31% of the 253 on offer. Eighteen of those came in gymnastics where the Olympic uneven bars champion, Aliya Mustafina (pictured above), claimed three titles, including the all-around competition. A likely star for Rio in 2016 and beyond was Yana Kudryavtseva, the “Crystal Statuette“, who dominated rhythmic gymnastics with four gold medals. But perhaps the most impressive bid for future glory was made not by an athlete but by an event, as acrobatic gymnastics made an energetic case to be included in future Olympic Games. A Russian pair, naturally, took three of the acrobatic crowns.

Russia was even stronger in the pool, with 30 golds in the Aquatics Centre, including 23 in swimming, a discipline reserved for junior competitors whose Olympic days are still ahead of them. Names to watch include Arina Openysheva, who took seven titles, including five in relays, Mariia Kameneva, who won nine medals in all, six of them gold, and Polina Egerova, whose six victories included individual wins in both butterfly and backstroke. Asked why the team is so good, one of them answered, “Because we are Russian“. In the coming years, it will become clear whether that explanation is correct.

Stamps of Azerbaijan, 2015-1221

Azerbaijan was second in the medal table, with its prowess in fighting sports coming to the fore. The Azeri hosts finished as the top nation in boxing, taekwondo and karate, a sport whose fans include the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, an honorary ninth dan. The biggest name champion was the “Maradona of karate“, Rafael Aghayev, who had to overcome the adversity of an early shock defeat in order to triumph. Azerbaijan stood on top of the wrestling podium six times (some way adrift of Russia’s eleven titles), with victors including Toghrul Asgarov, who repeated his performance from London 2012.

The women’s triathlon also echoed London where Nicola Spirig of Switzerland had defeated Lisa Norden of Sweden in a photo finish. Norden was beaten again, this time by a larger margin, and was relegated to third place. Others who built on 2012 included Irish boxer, Katie Taylor, and British taekwondo fighter, Jade Jones, who became the first person to win gold at the Youth Olympics, Olympic Games and European Games.

Countries proudly displayed their specialist niches, as if they were at an international exposition, but in sport rather than in industry. Denmark dominated the badminton events, Italy finished as the best nation in fencing, and Hungary won the most golds at the canoeing regatta. Danish badminton, Italian fencing and Hungarian canoeing will no doubt be the subject of future analysis on this blog. But there were surprises too. Great Britain made an impact in the diving competition for juniors, the ripples of which could be felt in 2020. The fact that Switzerland rode well on the mountain bike course was to be expected but for it to take five of the six medals on offer was unprecedented.

In a breathtaking performance at the Opening Ceremony, Lady Gaga sang, “Imagine there’s no countries”, an appropriate endorsement of the internationalist goals of the Olympic movement. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that, if there really were no countries, global events such as the European Games would not be quite as much fun.

Li-jiao

The mass exodus of Chinese table tennis players means that geography is no barrier to success. All three medallists in the women’s singles were born in China, as were many of the players in the team competition and the men’s singles bronze medallist. Li Jiao (pictured above) took individual gold and team silver representing the Netherlands.

Serbia won the men’s water polo tournament in Baku in the week in which it also won the EuroBasket Women. The Olympic gold medal has eluded it in both of these sports, something which it will hope to put right in Rio. Also seeking to make up for lost time is the Portuguese judoka, Telma Monteiro. Her fifth European championship title makes a medal at the Olympics an omission from her collection which is difficult to explain.

Elsewhere, Brazil’s reputation as the leading football power suffered further damage as it was knocked out of the Women’s World Cup by Australia and then its men were eliminated from the Copa America by Paraguay on penalties. As Hungary commanded the flatwater of Baku, its neighbour, the Czech Republic, won two of the five races at the Canoe Slalom World Cup in Krakow, to add to its six wins out of ten the previous week in Prague. At the cerebral palsy football World Cup, the finalists were perennial favourites, Russia and Ukraine, who have shared the Paralympic spoils in recent years. Russia won 1-0 in a fortnight in which the Russian Bear has had its fill of golden honey.

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