MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The capital of Belarus was chosen Friday to host the 2019 European Games, despite criticism of the country's human rights record and concerns over the cost of the event.
The European Olympic Committees approved Minsk — the only candidate — by an overwhelming majority to host the second edition of the multi-sport games. The Netherlands withdrew as host last year, citing financial worries.
"Belarus is not a superpower but we pay a lot of attention to sports," Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told the EOC assembly before the vote. "You can count on Belarus."
Minsk was backed by a large majority of EOC assembly delegates despite objections from Norwegian and Danish representatives that the committee had rushed into picking Belarus without enough scrutiny.
"We don't know the concept or structure for the games. We don't know the financial consequences," Danish Olympic Committee general secretary Morten Moelholm Hansen told The Associated Press. "The greatest worry now is that we take a decision that we don't know anything about."
Lukashenko has been in power for more than 20 years in Belarus, a former Soviet republic where political opposition is tightly restricted. It is also the last country in Europe to use the death penalty.
After criticism of last year's inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, on human rights grounds, EOC acting president Janez Kocijanic said there could be more of the same in Belarus in 2019.
"It might happen, of course," he told the AP. "You know, we are living in the times of democracy. Everybody is entitled to have his own opinion. What I would like to emphasize is that sport can come into any country, bringing in elements of democracy and free air. From our point of view, we will use sport as a tool of democracy."
The games in Baku involved lavish spending on new arenas and ceremonies, but failed to attract many top athletes. Belarus is focusing on quality over quantity.
Kocijanic said the games would be "a little bit more modest but normal," but an "excellent games" in terms of the level of competition. Belarus Olympic Committee general secretary Anatoly Kotov said he expected to have between 10 and 15 sports on the program, compared to more than 20 last year.
Whether that will include swimming or track and field — traditionally the two Olympic sports with the largest following — is unclear. The European governing bodies for the two sports jealously guard the popularity of their own European championships, and have banded together to stage a joint event in 2018.
In Baku, swimming was held as a junior competition and track and field as a team event.
"We want to see track and field but it must be competitions of the top division, qualifying for the Olympic Games," Kotov said. "It's completely possible we may have to go without some track and field disciplines, to be sure of 100 percent top level. If we can't do that, we'll have to make some sacrifices ... It's the same situation with aquatic events."
In his speech to the assembly, Belarusian president Lukashenko urged more events from the European Games to be made qualifiers for the Olympics in order to attract more top athletes and fans, a position shared by the EOC.
Controlling spending is a key concern for Belarus, which is in recession and has asked the EOC and International Olympic Committee to provide financial support for the games, though it was not clear Friday whether that would be provided.
Minsk would likely need to spend far less than Baku to host the games, having built or refurbished many sports venues in recent years. The Belarusian capital hosted the world track cycling championships in 2013 and world ice hockey championships a year later.
After the Netherlands withdrew as host last year, Russia was the EOC's preferred backup choice for 2019. But Russia showed little interest in hosting the event, even before the IOC said the country was not an appropriate choice because of its doping scandals.
Doping is also a possible area of concern for Belarus, which has a record of performance-enhancing drug use in ice hockey, weightlifting and track and field.