Having handed over the reins at The Saint and then graduated, I travelled to Kazan in Russia where I was part of the BUCS (British Universities and Colleges Sport) media team at the 2013 World University Games. Now that I’m back in the UK, our new Sport Editor – ever alive to an article opportunity – asked me to evaluate Russia’s ability to host major events in anticipation of the approach of several global sporting events to be held here in the next few years.
Russia, having hosted the World University Games this year, will be the location for the Winter Olympic Games in 2014 (in Sochi), the FINA World Aquatics Championships in 2015 (again in Kazan) and the FIFA World Cup in 2018 (in 11 different cities). The World University Games (or WUGS) may not generate the same worldwide interest as the Olympics and FIFA World Cup, but are not far off when it comes to scale. It attracted an estimated 12,000 participants from over 150 countries, in 13 days of competition in 27 different sports. No mean feat.
In order to cope with all this, there were 50 venues used, many of which were newly built for the WUGS and FINA Championships. The Kazan Arena, venue for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, is a stunning piece of architecture akin to the Emirates Stadium in London.
As a typically harsh Russian winter delayed its completion, there was no sport played there this month, but it is to become the new home of Rubin Kazan FC, so will be well worn in by the time Messi and co come calling in 2018. The other venues – those that I visited in covering badminton, football and shooting – were similarly impressive, or functional and par for the course at the very least.
The Aquatics Palace, meanwhile, lives up to its name as another breathtaking piece of design, while the competition pool itself made a very positive impression on the British swimmers I spoke to.If this is the standard of venues across Russia for the upcoming festivals of sport, then athletes and spectators will not be complaining – far from it.
What about the Athletes Village? A 23-hour dining hall with an astonishing variety of options (yes, food is very much at the top of the priorities list), spacious and functional accommodation blocks for the delegations and one central hub for information – the Village was another triumph of the Games. It was also flooded with volunteers, the ‘Games makers’ who handle enquiries, translate and smile a lot. Their level of competence varied – our men’s football team striking it lucky by having the world’s most efficient man as their attaché – but there can be few complaints about their level of service or ability to provide a friendly welcome.
There was red tape to be negotiated as with any major event like this, and some security requirements (i.e. no food or drink to be taken into the Village or venues from outside) caused headaches. Yet it was something you got used to, and my media role was not greatly hindered. Ultimately, if I wanted to get onto the touchline for post-match interviews and was faced with an unmoving bear of a security guard, I simply had to walk across to someone less stringent who waved me in.
The sorting of transport was another thing that appeared to vary from day to day and from driver to driver, while we quickly discovered that queuing up like good little Brits would get us nowhere. But these are little hitches in what was ultimately an impressive organisational achievement.
If there was a cause of discontent, it was the efforts the hosts went to in order to win. Home advantage aside, an Anglo-Russian journalist told me of an interview he conducted with one of the Russian ‘student athletes’:
“So which university do you go to?”
“OK, what do you study?”
“What? Oh, um, well, um… sport…”
Russia won 292 medals at the Games, 155 of those gold. China won 77 medals, 26 being gold. Our Russian hosts, in return for putting on such a good show, had bent the rules and – in many cases, it would seem – entered their national teams irrespective of whether their members attended higher education institutions, at least as we understand them.
“People cutting corners in sport? How unusual,” you may say. And you’d be right to put on those sarcastic tones. It is a point worth noting, however, with Olympics and World Cups never far from controversy.
Overall, my impression of Russia is that it is fully capable of hosting further major sporting events in the near future. There are a couple of qualifiers to add, however. I spent most of my time in the little bubble that was the Athletes Village (or press boxes at venues), so cannot claim to gained a view of the ‘real’ Kazan; and Kazan itself was described to us before our departure as one of Russia’s more tolerant cities. The spectators at events were generally fervent but friendly, as I came across no evidence of the violence or racism perpetrated by Russian football hooligans. At a World Cup, that may of course change.
Kazan, and Russia as a whole, took these Games very seriously, in terms of the effort put into venues, facilities, organisation and winning. They have an incredibly important few years ahead as they look to demonstrate their country’s capability to welcome the world’s sporting stars, media and fans.
Using Kazan 2013 as a yardstick, Russia seems more than capable of delivering on a global scale.