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Siberian Winter Universiade: A Game-Changer For Student Sport

Siberian Winter Universiade: A Game-Changer For Student Sport

Siberian Winter Universiade: A Game-Changer For Student Sport

When celebrated Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko spoke to participating athletes from outer space during the Opening Ceremony of the Krasnoyarsk 2019 Winter Universiade, it was instantly clear that this event was going to touch new heights. Quite literally.


The Summer and Winter Universiades are FISU’s flagship events, being the largest global sports events for university athletes. Held every two years, they bring together thousands of athletes from over 150 countries. The Krasnoyarsk edition was one of the biggest ever for the Winter games, with nearly 2,000 athletes from 58 nations competing in 76 medal events.


From the opening day on 2 March when the Universiade Flame was lit, to the last moments when it was extinguished 11 days later, the 29th Winter Universiade set the bar high. The level of organisation was evident from the time visitors and delegations arrived at the airport, greeted by dozens of volunteers with large placards and even bigger smiles. There was never any shortage of personnel – someone to greet you, someone to escort you to the waiting vehicle, yet another person to drive you to the hotel. The protocol and operations functioned with smooth efficiency.


From FISU’s (Fédération Internationale du Sport Universitaire) point of view as rights holder, the organising committee combined the local knowledge and experience of its team with the advice of FISU -- gained from 70 years of hosting university sports event – to produce a unique, grand and path-breaking event edition.


The setting itself was unique to begin with – never had a Winter Universiade been hosted in Russia before and the Siberian winter lands beckoned the world to come and get a taste of #RealWinter. While temperatures during the games ended up being higher than usual, no stone was left unturned in ensuring all visitors felt the warmth and grandeur of Siberian hospitality.


The positive event experience continued with the imposing sport competition venues, five of which were built from scratch only for the Universiade. Anyone who went to the bandy competition at the Yenisei Ice Stadium can bear witness to the fact that the Arena redefined grand. Ice hockey connoisseurs and veterans from Europe and North America were left stunned at the sheer size of the stadium that boasted an ice sheet larger than a professional  football pitch.


The entirely new Raduga Cluster – home to cross-country skiing – and the Platinum and Crystal Ice Arenas were not far behind in leaving spectators slack-jawed with awe.


“The quality of venues was the real standout of the Krasnoyarsk Winter Universiade,” said Winter Universiade Director, Milan Augustin. “Everything was to the highest international standards.”


A test event was held for every sport, including events at World Championships (ski orienteering) and World Junior Championships level (bandy). There were also non-sport test events held at the Universiade village and at the venues for ceremonies. This meant that by the time the Universiade came around, the people and processes were functioning like a well-oiled machine. And that provided the seamlessly efficient backdrop to a truly game changing Universiade.


“There were a lot of test events just before the Universiade,” said Augustin. “In an ideal situation they could have been more spread out, over the last year or so and not just in the last few months. That certainly created a lot of pressure. But in this case, it was unavoidable because so many venues were built from scratch and entirely new.”


The Winter Universiade team at FISU also believe that the sport presentation in Krasnoyarsk was perhaps the best-ever seen at a Winter Universiade. What it created, was an unforgettable experience for the thousands of spectators, athletes and delegates that were a part of the event. For FISU as a rights holder, this was a huge plus as it ensured an engaging live broadcast and compelling content that could then be distributed on social and international media.


Each day of competition produced moments of glory and ecstasy that captured the imagination of spectators and media alike. Some moments, though, stood out from the crowd. One of them came on the ice during the immensely popular figure skating competition. Despite the home crowd’s vocal support for local hero Maxin Kovtun in the men’s free skate, Italian Matteo Rizzo’s flawless routine to a Queen music medley turned the tide and atmosphere in his favour. His gold-medal winning performance captivated the audience. The cheer that rose from the crowd was worthy of the medal he’d earned.


“The atmosphere of the Universiade is delightful,” said Rizzo, also a bronze medallist at the 2019 European Figure Skating Championship. “The way I skated, it perfectly matched the support I felt from the stands. The resulting atmosphere was unique and amazing.”


The crowd played no favourites for athletes in other arenas as well, giving their all, in support. This extended to the cross-country ski arena where the men’s Chinese relay team was met by a standing-room-only crowd that was on its feet for a team crossing the finish line nearly a half hour out of the medal hunt.


These heart-warming stories were brought to the world by a large contingent of Russian and international media, but also by some youngsters for whom this was unchartered territory. In a nod to FISU’s ideal that sport is a proving ground for tomorrow’s leaders — and not just a platform for elite sportspersons — eighteen domestic and international young reporters brought stories from beyond the Universiade’s field of play to life. The Young Reporters Programme is one of FISU’s proudest traditions and Krasnoyarsk was another shining example of how it is enriching for both, the young journalists and also the event.


Among the six reporters from outside of Russia, four had never touched snow before. But with temperatures turning out to be rather comfortable during the Universiade, these student journalists were at the top of their game and ready to take the plunge to dig up a story, both in and out of the sports arena.


For Melbourne born-and-bred James Oana, this deep dive into winter sports included a number of first-person gonzo reports. Memorable accounts from Oana came while covering a local swim club as he stripped down to take a frigid dip with the team in the Yenisei River.


His colleagues from the young reporters’ team discovered the joys and idiosyncrasies of covering winter sports, from American Danielle Allentuck learning figure skating etiquette from the crowd, to Nepalese Sonita Aryal understanding that alpine skiing comes with its share of inherent risk-taking each time a racer leaves the starting gate.


At the end of the 11 days of competition, when Austria’s triple gold-medallist alpine skier Jessica Gfrerer said that the Universiade experience was unique, fun and delightful at the same time, you understood what she meant. There was a fuzzy warmth in the heart of Siberia.


Plus, when you have cosmonauts cheering you on from outer space, how could you not feel like the stars were aligning.


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