By Karolos Grohmann
ATHENS (Reuters) - The second edition of the European Games this summer is the main gateway to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for European athletes but the multi-sports event is still in search of a clear identity amid growing competition.
The Games in the Belarus capital Minsk from June 21-30 will host more than 4,000 athletes across 15 sports but they are facing competition from the European championships, another multi-sports event hosted for the first time in 2018 and which has several major federations on its side.
As the only continent with no multi-sports competition, the first edition of the European Games in 2015 was a lavish affair, costing several billion dollars as Azerbaijan spent heavily on new venues, transportation, athletes' and media villages and grand ceremonies.
Minsk must make do with a fraction of Baku's budget, a reported Games budget of under $60 million for the event that will have no swimming competition or traditional athletics events.
While swimmers will be absent, athletics will be represented with a new, team competition instead of the traditional individual events, in an effort to attract a younger audience with a fresher and shorter competition format.
Europe's top swimmers and track and field athletes have decided to go with the European championships, that took place in Glasgow and Berlin last year, instead of the Europeans Games, a creation of the European Olympic Committees (EOC).
The European championships, which will also be held every four years, have the backing of several federations and also the support of the European Broadcasting Union.
"For the time being we can live with it," EOC President Janez Kocijancic told Reuters of the competing event. "We don’t have anything against the expressed interest of European sports associations."
Kocijancic knows he has no real choice in the matter as federations look for new streams of revenues amid growing competition from esports and other recreational activities.
The EOC, in an effort to lure athletes to Minsk, is paying for all 50 teams' travel while also covering travel costs for team officials as well as presidents and general secretaries of the National Olympic Committees.
It also offers sports federations a financial contribution for costs they have incurred for the European Games.
Then there is the biggest lure of all: a spot in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics through the qualifiers at the European Games.
Nine sports will offer qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, including karate, archery, table tennis and badminton.
Four sports will use the European Games as their European championships.
"Our idea was to organise European Games as an event that is second only to the Olympic Games," Kocijancic said. "Europe is still the strongest continent if you look at the last editions of summer Games."
"Europe with less than 10 percent of athletes wins over 40 percent of medals. We represent really the strongest continent."
More than 4,000 athletes from 50 countries will compete in 200 medal events in 15 sports in Minsk and some 70,000 foreign visitors are expected, according to Games organiser George Katulin.
"We are in the centre of Europe. We have close relations with our neighbours, visitors will not need visas and we are easy to reach," Games CEO Katulin told Reuters. "We expect between 70,000-100,000 foreigners."
Minsk will mainly use existing venues as it looks to keep costs down and make the Games a more attractive prospect for western European cities that have so far shown limited interested in hosting them.
Both the 2023 host and the exact sports programme remain to be decided as the European Games look to attract a young audience.
"We have discussed with at least three potential organisers where I have been present," said Spyros Capralos, head of the EOC's coordination commission for Minsk 2020.
"There is great flexibility on sports on the programme because the Games are a new event. We have still not hosted the second edition."
Capralos said the competing European championships were "complementary in the overall effort for European sports."
"I would not rule out a collaboration (in the future) between the two bodies because I think they are complementary," said Capralos.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)