Philip Barker

Some eyebrows were raised this week when European Olympic Committees (EOC) President Janez Kocijančič claimed the European Games could be "a massive sports event which would be second only to the Olympics".

The Flame of Peace was lit in Rome last Friday (May 3) and began its journey to Minsk for the Games which open on June 21.

Eight sports at these second European Games will be qualification competitions for the Olympics in Tokyo and there's also another contest off the field. 

The Games will have to fight for attention in what will be a busy sporting summer and go head-to-head with the latter stages of the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the Men's Cricket World Cup, both of which are taking place in Europe at the same time. 

Although these may well attract different audiences, the perils of the counter attraction of other major events on television was made clear at the most recent major summer multi-sport event held on the continent. Attendances at the 2018 Mediterranean Games were for the most part disappointing as many chose to stay at home and watch the FIFA World Cup on television.

Minsk 2019 Coordination Commission chairman Spyros Capralos has insisted there has been "enormous promotion of the Games within Belarus itself and already from the ticket sales, we know that many events will be sold out".

Beyond Minsk, the future of these fledgling Games remains uncertain. The deadline for bidding cities for 2023 has been extended until the end of May and so far there does not appear to have been a rush of cities willing to take on the job.

This may be because of all the continents of the world, Europe has the longest running tradition of major championships and sporting contact going back into the 19th Century.

The Minsk 2019 Flame of Peace Relay began this week ©Minsk 2019
The Minsk 2019 Flame of Peace Relay began this week ©Minsk 2019

Before the Second World War, only two Olympiads had been held outside Europe. By 1939, some of the longest standing Olympic sports had set up their own European Championships.

Rowing had already established its own International Federation when the first official European Championships took place in Lake Orta in Northern Italy in 1893. Belgium's Edouard Lescrauwaet of the Antwerp club Societe Royale Nautique became the first European champion sculler and had also won unofficial championships in the preceding two years.

Eugene Baud, a future International Rowing Federation president, was a gold medallist with the Swiss coxed four.

Rowing had been planned as one of the sports at the first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896. These were to be held in Athens but bad weather forced their cancellation and an Olympic debut did not come until 1900, almost a decade after the initial international European regattas.

In 1896, only a few weeks before those Athens Olympics, weightlifters gathered in Rotterdam for their first European Championships.

The champion was Wilhelm Turk, a strongman from Austria who was to be a leading figure in the sport, though he did not appear in the Olympic weightlifting competition in Athens. There were no weight categories so competition was very much simpler than today.

But it was a time when "physical culture" had become very popular thanks to the efforts of pioneers such as Prussian-born Eugene Sandow and demonstrations by strong men in the theatre.

There had already been an international competition in March 1891. It was later described as a World Championships but each of the seven lifters came from Europe. The overall winner was Lawrence Levy of Britain, who later acted as a judge at the inaugural Olympic competition.

Without air travel, competition was conducted at a much more leisurely pace in those days. Teams visiting Europe often arrived by boat and then continued to their destinations by rail, often with journeys of many days.

Fencing was among the early sports to hold a European Championships ©Getty Images
Fencing was among the early sports to hold a European Championships ©Getty Images

Fencing had been included in the Olympic Games since the outset, but it was not until 1921 that a European Championships were introduced and then only in the épée discipline. This took place at the end of a "fencing week" organised at the Magic-City in Paris.

"The handsome interior was gaily decorated with flags of the allied nations. A very agreeable view from the point of view of spectators who crowded the halls every day," the correspondent for The Times newspaper reported, though he did complain that the events were held indoors.

"It was a great pity that for such an important occasion it was not possible to secure an open air piste where the competitions could be conducted in conditions approximate to those of the duel."

To the delight of the home crowds, the winner was Lucien Gaudin. A silver medallist in the foil at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, he showed he was equally at home with the épée and won all eleven of his bouts. The Parisian press described it as "a performance which permits us to call him the best amateur epeeist in the world at this time".

Gaudin went on to win Olympic gold in both Paris and Amsterdam.

There had been also been an international women’s foil competition. Although this was unofficial, it was effectively a European Championship. Utta Barding of Denmark won the event.

"Her attacks were delivered with precision and authority. Her skill was unequalled by any of her opponents," reports from the time said.

Barding beat the home favourite Lucienne Prost. They would take part when the women’s event was admitted to the Olympics in 1924. Women would officially participate in the European Championships in 1929, when Helene Mayer of Germany, a future Olympic gold medallist, was triumphant.

EOC President Janez Kocijančič has promised the organisation will find a suitable host for the 2023 European Games ©Getty Images
EOC President Janez Kocijančič has promised the organisation will find a suitable host for the 2023 European Games ©Getty Images

Before the First World War, the Hungarians had been a major force in the Olympic world. Budapest had hosted an International Olympic Committee session in 1911 and many considered them prime candidates to host the Olympics themselves in 1920.

The war changed everything. As one of the defeated powers they were excluded from the 1920 Games but Hungarian sporting aspirations continued.

In 1926, the first European Swimming Championships took place, at the instigation of the Hungarians, who hosted the events in Budapest.

"The crowds were so large that nearly as many people were refused admission as secured it. Thousands being outside the frail gates clamouring for entrance with the result that the mounted police had to charge to get them away," wrote John Hodgson, one of the water polo judges at the event.

In those days water polo was also included and success from the host nation surely helped attendances.

They also had a gold medal to cheer in the 100 metres freestyle. Istvan Barany would establish himself as the best European over the distance, though he would be beaten by the great American Johnny Weismuller at the Olympic Games.

Hungarians were also at the forefront of a move to stage a European Athletics Championships. Szilard Stankovits, President of the Hungarian Federation, proposed them at a meeting of what was then known as the International Amateur Athletic Federation in the Olympic year of 1932.

The following September, a meeting in Berlin confirmed the host city as Turin for 1934.

Only men’s events were held in a competition staged in what is now the Stadio Olimpico. At the time, it was named in honour of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Finland’s Matti Jarvinen beat his own world record in the men’s javelin and Chris Berger of the Netherlands completed the sprint double of 100m and 200m, thanks in no small measure to the new photo finish technology; the verdict had originally been given to Germany’s Erich Borchmeyer. Behind these two came Jozsef Sir, later a prominent official who later helped found the IAAF World Cup.

The first women’s events were held in 1938 in Vienna. The men’s championship was held in Paris and it was not until 1946 that the two came together.

The first multi-sport European Championships were held in Glasgow and Berlin last year ©Getty Images
The first multi-sport European Championships were held in Glasgow and Berlin last year ©Getty Images

Until the introduction of World Championships in 1983, the European Championships remained second only to the Olympics in importance.

Athletics is included in the 15 sports for Minsk alongside cycling and gymnastics, yet all three were also also part of a multi-sport European Championships held in Glasgow and Berlin in 2018 which also featured golf, rowing, swimming and triathlon. 

"The European Championships is borne out of the desire to create the grandest of stages in Europe upon which to crown the achievements of Europe’s champions," organisers said.

Organisers of this event also insisted they were "creating the most captivating multi-sport event possible".

It does make it difficult for the spectator to work out which has greater importance. The answer does get rather complicated.

The next European Championships are scheduled for 2022 and the process of choosing a host city is said to be "ongoing". The EOC hope to have a clearer picture and name "an excellent organiser" as 2023 European Games host city in June, but a more sustainable long-term solution might be to bring the two events together.