A neat trick involving a sleight of hand is about to be performed in front of our eyes and the illusionists trust we will marvel at the spectacle and beg for more.
The first European Sports Championships begin in Glasgow on Thursday and conclude in Berlin 11 days later. Eight sports are stacking their continental showpieces in a single deck and allowing the organisers and television producers to shuffle the cards around in a game of who has top trumps next?
There will be athletics in Berlin, swimming, cycling and gymnastics in Glasgow, and diving in Edinburgh. Rowing and triathlon will take place in a country park in Motherwell. Oh, and there is golf at Gleneagles. All packaged together for the first time and offered to the world.
“The key thing is to create something which has much broader appeal than stand-alone championships,” the co-founder and director, Paul Bristow, says. “Most of them lacked any general cut-through with the public. So you transform something which only appeals to dedicated fans of the sport.
“You might be a cycling fan who knows when the track cycling championships take place and where they can be found on your TV guide. But if you’re a casual sports fan, you won’t know where or when, or the winners. They’ll know when the Olympic Games are on. When the Commonwealth Games are on.
“The athletes in these sports come to life. They become personalities and people realise their phenomenal achievements. We felt that being the best out of 850 million people on the planet was something that needed to be properly recognised.”
It is a reasonable ambition and has persuaded the BBC to carve out 12 hours per day to dart from one venue to another on the promise that co-ordinated timetables will concoct a seamless stream of highlights. “And to the TV viewer,” Bristow says, “it doesn’t matter if you go 2,000 metres from the velodrome to the track or 2,000 kilometres across Europe.”
Swiss sprinter Pascal Mancini has been barred from the European championships by his country’s athletics federation after posting “far-right” messages on his Facebook page. “Pascal Mancini has recently posted controversial posts on his athlete Facebook page with far-right thinking that violate both an agreement signed with Swiss Athletics and the association’s Code of Conduct,” Swiss Athletics said in a statement. “By signing the agreement, Mancini committed to refrain from publishing any discriminatory or racist contributions related to athletics.” It said it had withdrawn his licence so that he could not compete in the 100 metres in Berlin, where this year’s European championships are being held in August, and opened disciplinary proceedings. Mancini has said he is the victim of a media campaign against him. “If I were a racist, I would say so,” he told one newspaper. Reuters
While it feels a more engaging prospect than the poorly received European Games which barely engineered a ripple in Baku in 2015, the quality may vary.
For athletics, gymnastics and swimming, this is the focal point of their calendar. The track and outdoor elements of cycling will bring sufficient stardust. However rowing is a tough sell. Triathlon’s European showpiece has rarely lured its leading lights and, while golf’s mixed team format injects a novelty factor, Great Britain’s Callum Shinkwin – the world No 228 – will be the highest-ranked male. This suggests this is a prize few covet, even among those not in action at the USPGA Championship.
Ultimately it will all come back to eyeballs. Research by the European Broadcasting Union indicates that by aggregating sports as in the Olympics, the public can be persuaded to tune in for the pebbles and the gems. “And even though the athletics championships has a long history in its own right, we feel being a part of this will have a supercharging effect on Berlin,” says the European Athletics head of communications, James Mulligan.
A cyclist is seen during a practice session at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome on Wednesday. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
“We’ve seen the fragmentation of TV channels and how that eats away at viewership. But this has sustained our place on BBC One, on ARD, on France Télévisions, and it means Berlin and Glasgow get the major event treatment which is good for us and good for the athletes.”
The cost of the concept – about two per cent of the price of an Olympiad – may attract other hosts. Glasgow has spent £90m, a relatively inexpensive means to obtain further returns on the sumptuous investments made for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
“It is a very affordable multisport event, even with 40 per cent of the athletes that you’d get at an Olympics,” Bristow says. “We’ve achieved it firstly because we’ve not put too many sports into the programme. It is big but sustainable. There are no athletes villages, just hotels and student accommodation, and we’re using existing facilities, so there is no white elephant to gather dust.”
London, sources say, has passed on staging the whole of the next championships in 2022. Other cities and regions will wander along this week to evaluate and be wooed. They will find track and field in Berlin’s Olympiastadion has inevitably shifted seats by the dozen but interest across the North Sea has been patchy. Gymnastics has sold well in Glasgow, cycling too. Other sports, less so.
Give it a little time, Bristow says, for the rabbit to leap wholly out of the hat. “Look at other events which have started over the past 25 years. The Rugby World Cup – no one really knew about it until it happened. The Champions League needed some work at the start. It took a while for people to know what it was. The cricket World Cup was the same.
“For all of them, the first editions were never at the level they are now. We’ve always been realistic that this is an event that will grow over time and people will see what it is like when it hits their screen.”