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Second European Games gets underway in Minsk

Second European Games gets underway in Minsk
© Reuters
Conway and Magee lead out British and Irish teams in Dinamo Stadium.

In Dinamo Stadium under a brooding Belarusian sky, the second European Games was declared open on Friday night with little of the gaudy extravagance that defined its predecessor.

Where Lady Gaga was paid a reported USD2million to belt out 'Imagine' in Baku four years ago, Minsk preferred folk bands, straw horses and giant bison for a ceremony which drew heavily on the country's cultural history.

It was a refreshing if relatively unambitious show which indirectly reflected the downsized ambitions of an event which had been initially contrived in order to showcase the best of each sport's continental championships.

Sally Conway
Sally Conway led out the Great Britain team in Minsk (Martin Rickett/PA)

Olympic judo medallist Sally Conway and badminton player Chloe Magee led out the Great Britain and Ireland teams respectively for a Games which is still struggling to assert itself on the international calendar.

In a 100-strong Great Britain team,  Conway, Jason Kenny, Katy Marchant and badminton pair Chris Langridge and Marcus Ellis are the only members of the Great Britain squad to have stepped on an Olympic podium.

Minsk was the only realistic contender to stage these second Games and, with its lively fan zones and well-appointed venues, it has shown encouraging early signs of embracing the Games like all too few of Europe's superstar athletes.

European Games
The Minsk opening ceremony featured local artists (Martin Rickett/PA)

The European Games is likely to struggle to attract truly continental attention for as long as it is seen to be rooted in the east, moreover in states which beg serious questions concerning authoritarianism and human rights.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, who addressed the crowd during the ceremony, has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994, through four elections whose veracity has been questioned by international observers.

In Minsk, attention turns to those athletes aiming to stake their claims towards Tokyo, with direct quota qualification available in shooting and archery, and qualifying points also on offer in the majority of other Olympic events on the programme.

Inevitable accusations of inconsequence would not sit easy with a GB track cycling squad anxious to atone for a disappointing World Championships in Poland earlier this year and rediscover their form in time for Japan.

Nor gymnast Giarnni Regini-Moran, who is making his major international comeback from a desperate period of injuries since winning three gold medals at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing.

Nor skeet shooter Amber Hill, the only defending European Games champion in the Great Britain squad, who will be competing despite the death of her grandfather and mentor, Bill Rogers.

Sally Conway
Rio bronze medallist Sally Conway will compete on Sunday in Minsk (Martin Rickett/PA)

Certainly, the absence of swimming or any recognisably top-level form of athletics from the programme, which includes a growing list of non-Olympic disciplines like aerobics, beach soccer and sambo, has hit the Games'  profile hard.

But the relative importance of other well-established continental competitions, chiefly the Asian and Pan-American Games, plus the imminent announcement of Polish hosts for 2023, indicates it has no desire to resist the challenge.

It is hoped the 11 days of sport will unveil new stars and act as a springboard for some to emulate the Olympic heroics of the likes of Kenny and Conway, and all those others who have stayed away.

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