IOC's Bach praises European Games harmony
BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach praised the inaugural European Games for promoting harmony between peoples Sunday, even as tensions between host nation Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia threatened to overshadow the sporting action.
In a statement, Bach praised the sight of Russian and Ukrainian athletes competing together despite the conflict in eastern Ukraine, adding that ''we see Armenian athletes alongside their hosts from Azerbaijan ... This is the power of sport to bring people together.''
Armenia sent athletes to the games despite a long-running conflict with the host nation, but they have been booed on many occasions by the home crowds, starting with Friday's opening ceremony.
Sunday saw Armenian wrestler Migran Arutyunyan jeered as he lost the men's 66-kilogram Greco-Roman wrestling final to Russia's Artyom Surkov. Despite expressing anger at the refereeing, Arutyunyan struck a conciliatory tone about his treatment from the crowd.
''I already came here in the mood. I already knew it would be like that,'' he said.
''Despite the fact that people were shouting and whistling, there are a lot of good people ... I'm even sorry for them because they're people to me, we're all the same.''
On Saturday, Azerbaijani fans booed another Armenian wrestler and a Russian wrestler of Armenian heritage.
The crowd's reaction should be seen as a manifestation of a sporting rivalry rather than political tension, argued Azerbaijani wrestler Elvin Mursaliev, the gold medal-winner in the men's 75kg Greco-Roman event.
''They're our competitors, and obviously no one in Azerbaijan, whether as an athlete or a spectator, would want to support one of the competitors of the Azerbaijani team,'' he said through a translator.
Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region and some adjacent territory have been under the control of Armenian soldiers and local Armenian forces since a 1994 cease-fire that ended a six-year war. There have been clashes on the border on a number of occasions over the last year.
With Kosovo competing in its first major games under its own flag after becoming a full IOC member in December, Bach also said he was happy to see Serbs and Kosovans compete together. Serbia claims Kosovo as part of its territory.
Kosovo came close to winning its first medal Sunday, but its hopes were dashed as Alvin Karaqi lost his bronze medal match in men's karate.
Bach also had praise for Friday's opening ceremony, which was estimated by Sports Minister Azad Rahimov to have cost 100 million manat ($95 million), more than twice the cost of London's Olympic ceremony in 2012. The show was ''truly spectacular,'' Bach said.