By Jonathan Rest
LEN, swimming's European governing body, told Sportcal today it has not yet committed to participating in the inaugural European Games in 2015, despite assertions to the contrary from Patrick Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committees.
LEN officials will meet with EOC representatives next Monday to discuss whether to send swimmers to Baku, Azerbaijan, with two further rounds of talks scheduled for this month in the hope of reaching an agreement before the 2015 European Games sports programme is formalised in March.
The buy-in from swimming and athletics is seen by many as being vital to the success of the European Games initiative, but European Athletics has already said that it will not participate in 2015 because it has contractual obligations with broadcasters and sponsors to honour.
Athletics, swimming and gymnastics were noticeable by their absence from a list of 13 sports that confirmed their participation for Baku when the concept for a quadrennial multi-sports event was approved by the EOC at a general meeting in Rome in December.
Hickey told Sportcal today that, following months of talks, progress had been made, noting: "We are kicking off the games with a number of federations including swimming, gymnastics and wrestling and we have requests from many other sports on the Olympic programme who wish to participate, plus many requests from non-Olympic sports and we are evaluating these at the moment."
However, Laszlo Szakadati, executive director of LEN, said aquatics cannot yet be inked on the 2015 sports programme.
He said: "We have not formally announced anything yet. We are still having negotiations with the EOC about this, but we are favourable on participation.
"Our president [Paolo Barelli] has three meetings arranged in the next few weeks to clarify the format, whether will it be just swimming or all aquatic disciplines, including water polo. Generally we are not negative on participation if some of the demands are met.
"The calendar issue is obviously an issue. We have the World Championships in July that year but perhaps we can overcome this. It may be that we leave it to the federations to decide if they attend."
The 2015 European Games are slated to be held in June, just a month before the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, meaning the participation of Europe's top swimmers cannot be guaranteed.
The European Union of Gymnastics last week voted in favour of participating in the European Games, as has the European Wrestling Association. Wrestling is a particularly popular sport in Azerbaijan.
The games will involve at least 15 Olympic sports and two non-Olympic sports, likely to be karate and dance sport. European confederations representing 13 sports have already signed letters of intent to be included in the 2015 European Games: archery; badminton; boxing; canoeing; fencing; handball; judo; rugby [sevens]; shooting; table tennis; taekwondo; triathlon; and volleyball.
Late last year, Stefan Kuerten, director sports and business at the European Broadcasting Union, the umbrella body of mainly public-service broadcasters, warned that the inaugural European Games will struggle to secure free-to-air television coverage without the buy-in of athletics and swimming.
He said at the time: "For the time being the concept must be clarified. At the moment it's very difficult to explain. There are lots of questions surrounding participating federations, quality of athletes and scheduling.
"If you have key sports [like athletics and swimming] that are not part of the event, it clearly reduces our members' interest. Without them [the sports] on board, it is just another sports event."
But Hickey is adamant that the absence of athletics will not harm the games' credibility.
He said today: "It is not a blow whatsoever that athletics have said they will not participate. We did not expect them to be part of the first games, due to the fact that they have commitments up to and through 2015. We have an excellent relationship with the EAA [European Athletics] and we will continue to speak with them."
The European Games have been in the pipeline for some time, with Hickey a leading proponent of a continental event along the lines of the well-established Asian Games and Pan American Games. However, there is still opposition from many of the international federations of the sports involved which are concerned that there is no room in the calendar for the games and that they have not been properly consulted, even though they will be expected to provide officials and athletes to take part.
The new event is expected to last for 14 days and is budgeted to cost €182 million ($248 million) to stage and bring in revenues of €124 million, with the difference to be made up by governments and/or host cities.