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The first World Games took place from 24 July to 2 August 1981 in Santa Clara, California, USA. The venues were rented from the city. 16 sports were on the program, including women's water polo.
The new idea of a multisport event for sports that were not part of the Olympic program was realized in Santa Clara, a city in the heart of the Silicon Valley. The World Games 1981 were a test run for the concept established at the foundation meeting of the IWGA on 21 May 1980.
Thomas Keller, President of the GAISF, opened the games at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara and read a greeting from the then US President Ronald Reagan. During the opening ceremony, Kim Un-yong, President of the World Games executive committee, representing the 12 founding member federations, said:
"Our theme is sport for the sake of sport and a total disregard for where an athlete comes from."
This sentence expressed the then still special approach to the idea of a multi-sport event: The World Games put sport in the foreground and not the participating national teams. At the opening ceremony, the athletes marched in sorted by sport and not by nation. All athletes were hosted in the Santa Clara University. However, The World Games did not want to be acknowledged as a competitor to the Olympic movement. Participation in the World Games should not reduce the chances of integration into the Olympic program. This idea worked, as can be seen from the examples of Taekwondo, Water Polo Women, Trampoline and Badminton.
1600 athletes from 58 nations competed in 104 medal events for the first gold at The World Games. About 80,000 spectators came to the venues on ten competition days. Among the nations was also China (four times gold in badminton). The USA took first place in the medals table with a total of 99 medals, 39 of which were gold medals. South Korea took second place with a total of nine gold medals. A total of 13 sports venues, including a parking lot for speed skating, were used. The sports facilities were rented by the Executive Committee of the University and the City of Santa Clara.
The Buck Shaw stadium (now Stevens Stadium) has been the home base of the Santa Clara University Broncos soccer team. It was used for the opening ceremony. The tug-of-war competitions were also held here immediately after the opening ceremony. The first winners of a gold medal at The World Games were the team from Great Britain in the 640 kilo class. The teammates were: Joe Critchlow, John Critchlow, Ron Critchlow, Brian Jones, Roland Peirson, Eric Suton, Luan Torr, Mark Upton.