By Justin Palmer
BAKU (Reuters) - The inaugural European Games has won over the doubters, even with low profile athletics and swimming events, and its concept will pave the way for future successful editions, European Olympic Committees president Patrick Hickey told Reuters.
Over 6,000 athletes and 20 sports, including the innovative 3 x 3 basketball which appeals to younger audiences, feature at the multi-sport Games in the Azeri capital which ends on Sunday.
"The first Games are on the way to being extremely successful," Irishman Hickey, the main driving force behind the creation of the Games, said in an interview at the iconic Flame Towers complex with its sweeping views of the Caspian Sea.
"We had our doubters because in the beginning because people said this is a new product and could not work but I remind everyone that the Asian Games, which is the most successful continental games, started with seven sports and I think they now have something like 47.
"The biggest value is we were the only continent without a continental games and we have no history here, every sport was concerned with their own European championships.
"Now we have created a concept of all teams traveling together and living in the one Olympic village and the feedback we have got is this is a great practice run for the Olympic Games for European athletes and teams to travel together.
"We are getting word back that the bonding in the Olympic village is fantastic and that everybody is thrilled with this concept."
Hickey said it was always known that athletics and swimming, traditionally the blue riband events of any Games, would "not be the real deal" in Baku.
The third-tier athletics team competition attracted low crowds to the Olympic stadium with the more high-profile European Team Championships in Cheboksary, Russia, taking place at the same time.
Hickey, however, was more than encouraged by comments from European Athletics president Svein Arne Hansen that there could be a more high-profile format for track and field at the next Games in four years' time.
"We were happy with what we had and we had hoped to improve on it in 2019," Hickey said.
"I have a good relationship with Svein and the two of us agreed on finding a way forward to have a meaningful athletics event in 2019. They are fully co-operative on his side, fully on our side... there is room for both sides to do something innovative."
CHEAP AND CHEERFUL
The Netherlands pulled out of hosting the next edition days before the opening ceremony in Baku because the Dutch government decided it would be a financial burden.
But Hickey said each Games going forward would not be identical in terms of size, infrastructure and resources, with oil-rich Azerbaijan able to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into building stadiums.
"Baku is completely different to what the next Games will be like, they have Olympic ambitions and want to make another bid in the future. The Netherlands, the concept they had was different... it was a cheap and cheerful Games.
"What we said eight years ago remains the same. We tailor the Games to the host city we are dealing with. If they have sports they favor, we let those sports in."
Seven candidates have emerged to replace the Dutch and the fact that the next edition would have more resonance for Olympic qualification could help attract the best competitors, Hickey said.
"Never did we conceive in the beginning that any sports here would be Olympic related qualification. In our negotiations this started to happen. And we were mesmerized to have 12 sports that would have some continuity into Rio (2016).
"We have taken great energy from this because it is one of the ambitions of (International Olympic Committee) president (Thomas) Bach to have all continental games as potential qualifiers for the Olympic Games.
"The fact we had 12 this time... we will have a lot more in 2019."
(Editing by John O'Brien)