By Karolos Grohmann
BERLIN, Aug 15 (Reuters) - The European Games, starting from the inaugural event in Azerbaijan next year, must become a springboard for the Olympics with athletes attracted by qualification opportunities, the head of the Baku 2015 European Games said on Friday.
Baku 2015 Chief Operating Officer Simon Clegg, formerly the British Olympic Association's first chief executive, told Reuters in an interview that offering Olympic qualification was a key to establishing the event in a crowded global sports calendar.
"There have been Panamerican Games and Asian Games since 1951, African Games and Games in Oceania and, despite the sporting prowess and commercial strength of Europe, there were no Continental Games," he said.
"Europe has lagged behind all of the other regions."
The creation of the European Games - the continent's first multi-sports event of this size - raised eyebrows a few years ago, but organisers have made 10 of 19 sports on the programme Olympic qualifiers to ensure the big names show up.
Those include triathlon, table tennis, shooting, archery, boxing and taekwondo.
"I think it is absolutely fundamental, absolutely central to the sustainability of the European Games going forward," Clegg said. "As many (Olympic qualifications) as possible."
"To have 10 of 19 sports on the programme having Olympic qualifying or Olympic ranking events is really good. It guarantees the best athletes."
The choice of Baku as the first host city was greeted with some scepticism given Azerbaijan is not a traditional sports powerhouse.
But the energy-rich nation has the cash to deliver and follows in the footsteps of Gulf states Qatar and United Arab Emirates who are investing heavily in bringing top sports events to their region, including the 2022 soccer World Cup.
"If we can successfully create and develop this brand into something that has commercial value then we provide direct benefit to the National Olympic Committees with a new revenue stream," Clegg said.
"We are in the process of creating the brand that others will benefit (from). There is no blueprint, no files to take off the shelves. At times, it is quite daunting, but also incredibly exciting."
Clegg refused to say what the budget for staging this event is, but admitted it would be higher than that of the next hosts as Baku needed to spend more on promoting the European Games because they do not yet exist.
Staging the event does not seem to pose any real problem to Azerbaijan, but questions about the country's human rights record and volatile relations with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh will be recurrent themes in the runup to the event next June.
At least 16 combatants were killed and several wounded in last week's clashes around the region, which lies within Azerbaijan, but is populated mostly by ethnic Armenians.
The clashes highlighted the risk of broader conflict in the South Caucasus area, where oil and natural gas flow from the Caspian region to Europe.
"It is difficult to separate sports and politics, but I can't focus on anything else... (with) 341 days to go (as of)today," Clegg said when asked about it. "You have to ask those questions to the politicians."
Despite Azerbaijan's financial clout, Clegg said the event would not become bigger than planned with a maximum of 6,000 athletes in order to remain commercially attractive for future hosts.
"My view is the vision relayed to us by the President of European Olympic Committees and it is about innovation and stability, not about gigantism and growing the event," he said.
"This has to be sustainable and contained. You make it sufficiently attractive and capable to be staged in many of the countries." (Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, editing by Tim Collings)