Congratulations to The World Games for enabling 40 years of memorable sporting performances. Over the past four decades of the existence of the global multi-sports programme, there have been multiple changes to virtually every aspect of The World Games.
The first edition in 1981 in the Californian city of Santa Clara saw 1,893 athletes from 58 countries compete across 15 sports. Fast forward to the Wroclaw 2017 edition and the sporting carnival had virtually doubled: 3,168 athletes representing over a hundred nations contested medals in 31 different sports. The range of sports contested is equally impressive; some sports like Badminton, Taekwondo, Beach Volleyball and Triathlon fulfilled their ambitions, and are now established sports on the Olympic programme. Their elevation to Olympic status has created space for new sports like Airsports, Orienteering and Muaythai to be added to The World Games roster.
Though The World Games may look very different to when it debuted 40 years ago, one thing has remained constant – the sporting excellence of the athletes. As every sportsperson who competes at The World Games has earned their right to be on the starting line through a qualifying process, world-class competition is guaranteed in every sport. During the last four decades there have been many outstanding athletes who have represented their countries at the various editions of the multi-sport spectacular; here is a selection of the sports stars who most fully embody the excellence of competition at The World Games.
Santa Clara 1981: Fittingly, the debut edition which took place in California, had a hometown All-American hero to set the standard for sporting excellence. Steve Rajeff, born just up the road in San Francisco, and who would become the most prolific medallist in the history of The World Games (15, including eight golds) cast far but not wide, as he dominated the Casting podiums for distance and accuracy.
London 1985: Jurgen Kolenda entered the Crystal Palace swimming pool seven times, and seven times the amazing Underwater Finswimmer emerged a few minutes later, having left all his competitors trailing in his wake. Add to his tally the four medals gained from his visits to the top step of Santa Clara podiums, and the speedy German is, by some distance, the most successful gold prospector seen in the history of The World Games. In Birmingham, if Pavel Kobanov qualifies, can he end up on the podium 17 years after claiming his first medal in The World Games? He first triumphed in Duisburg in 2005 and has over the years added a further three golds, two silvers and a bronze. Valeriya Baranovskaya has won two medals in the pool in each of the last three editions. In Alabama, will it be her seventh or even eighth visit to the podium? To beat Hungarian swimmer Petra Senanszky will likely give her superhero status; Senanszky’s brace of medals from Wroclaw were both acquired with World Record times.
Karlsruhe 1989: Exceptional athletes are not only found under water, they also flourish above water. The name that shines brightest in Waterskiing is Patrice Martin. The Frenchman truly deserves his place in the pantheon of The World Games, not only because of his longevity, (in each of the first five editions, his efforts resulted in a medal presentation) but also his outstanding versatility. It was taken for granted that he would win the Tricks competition, and until 2001 no other competitor was capable of breaking his golden monopoly. The German host city is located across the Rhine from Martin's homeland, and the talented water-skier made himself comfortable by also bringing home the Slalom gold. Four years later, he had the full set of medals available in his sport by claiming a silver in the Jumps discipline. His Overall silver in 2001 marked the eighth and final time that he would mount the podium. Who of the modern day water-skiers could make an impact in Birmingham in 2022? Home fans will be hoping it will be Florida resident Regina Jaquess, who was a double champion in Cali in 2013. Jaquess claimed 3 titles at last year's PanAmerican Games in Lima, 16 years after first medalling in that particular multi-sport event.
The Hague 1993: The Dutch edition of The World Games saw the emergence of some of Karate's most respected and successful athletes. It was in the Netherlands that Ryoki Abe won the first of his gold medals at three successive games. This feat would soon be replicated by Japanese compatriot Atsuko Wakai. An undoubted highlight of their careers was their triumphs in 2001 at Akita, in front of their home fans. Abe was not the only Karate legend present on the Kata (demonstration of techniques) podium that day. He shared it with Venezuelan newcomer Antonio Diaz, who had claimed bronze.
Diaz, like Wakai, would go on to enter the Guinness Book of Records for claiming the most World Championship titles. However Diaz would also make his mark on The World Games. When, in 2013, he heard the Venezuelan anthem being played in neighbouring Colombia, it was the second time he had claimed gold, after first triumphing eight years earlier. Wroclaw 2017, and the historic third bronze medal for the South American athlete, meant that he had matched the feats of Patrice Martin, Wei-Ling Chen, the powerlifter from Chinese Taipei, and Peter Odermatt (the Swiss Tug Of War puller who was present on the Santa Clara podium, when the first ever medal of The World Games was presented!) in winning medals at five successive editions.
Diaz has always wanted to compete in the Olympics, and his wish is set to be granted at Tokyo 2021, when Karate makes its Games debut. The Kata legend has declared his intention to retire immediately after the Olympics, but there remains one challenge left for him to complete – to stake his claim to be regarded as the greatest athlete seen at The World Games! Should Diaz decide to come to Birmingham in 2022, and make it to the podium, he will equal the record of Steve Rajeff, the only athlete to win medals at six editions of The World Games.
Lahti 1997: The most successful dual champion of both the Olympics and The World Games excelled in the Finland edition. Chad Hedrick, the American Speed Skater, who in his career won an incredible 50 World Championships, topped the Roller Sports podium twice and also added a silver and bronze. In Akita, four years later, he doubled his collection of gold and also finished third in a race, to give him seven medals in total. He then made the switch from wheels to ice skates with great effect, winning three World Championships and then going on to claim a medal of each colour at the Turin 2010 Winter Olympics. More glory followed at Vancouver 2014, with two podium appearances; Hedrick demonstrated his versatility by winning five Olympic medals in five different disciplines.
More recently, Belgian skater Bart Swings also managed to medal in both multi-sport Games. He has become a champion of The World Games in the last two editions, in Cali and Wroclaw. In the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, The Belgian brought delight to his country with a burst of speed that netted him the silver medal.
Swings is not the only Olympian that Birmingham sports fans should look out for in 2022. In Archery, Lisa Unruh followed up her unexpected silver medal in the Rio 2016 Target Archery competition with an extraordinary shoot-off triumph in the Wroclaw 2017 Field Archery final. Brady Ellison, the current World Champion, has been in four major gold matches, but there has been no silver lining for him in occupying the second podium step in Finals in London, Cali, Rio and Wroclaw. The popular American will be hoping that the support of his home crowd will finally yield the gold medal that his immense talent deserves. In Gymnastics, Dong Dong has been the most successful Trampoline Olympian; a bronze for the individual Trampoline in front of his countrymen in Bejing, the career highlight of the Chinese flag being raised in London, and for variety, a medal of the final colour a reward for his efforts in Rio. He is just as good in Synchro Trampoline, as his golden souvenirs from Cali and Wroclaw amply testify. When talking about Olympic gymnasts with the Midas touch, you have to include the Queen of Rhythmic Gymnastics, Eugenia Kanaeva – 17 world titles and the Russian's clean sweep of all four Individual medals at The World Games in Kaohsiung were sandwiched by triumphs in Beijing and London Olympic Games.
Who will arrive in Birmingham as the Overall Olympic Champion? On current form, the answer is likely to involve the name Averina; during Wroclaw 2017 identical twins Arina and Dina copied their fellow country-woman in monopolising the podium ceremonies, and both have four medals apiece that bear the logo of The World Games.
The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee. The 11th edition of The World Games will be held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 7-17 July 2022. 3,600 athletes from over 30 sports and 100 countries will take part in The World Games.