The eyes of sports fans across Europe have turned this week towards the UEFA European Championships, where the continent’s best football teams are battling it out to win the prestigious trophy. The tournament is designed to mark Europe’s sporting heritage, with games taking place in eleven different countries.
Let’s therefore mark the occasion by picking out some of the continent’s best athletes, many of whom will be competing in Birmingham next year when The World Games makes its long awaited return to the USA. Sports journalist Brian Salmon takes a look at The World Games and Europe in this article.
Though The World Games had an international beginning - Korean Un-yong Kim was the founding President of the International World Games Association and the debut edition in 1981 was hosted by the Californian city of Santa Clara - Europe has always had a big influence on The World Games. The continent has hosted six of the first ten editions, and has dominated the medal tables; the IWGA is based in Switzerland and many of the staff are based in Europe. Let’s therefore mark this big European sporting occasion by picking out some of the continent’s best athletes, many of whom will be competing in Birmingham next year when The World Games makes its long awaited return to the USA.
Despite being top of the all-time medals table at The Word Games, Italy rather surprisingly has never hosted an edition of the premier non-Olympic event. A fruitful source of medals has always been Lifesaving. Jacopo Musso excelled in the Wroclaw 2017 pool, successfully carrying not only the mannikin but also three golds. The epitome of Italian style, Luca Lucaroni will be a hot favourite in Artistic Roller Skating to repeat his podium dominance.
Third best in the all-time table is Germany, a two-time host that last welcomed athletes in 2005. The Duisburg edition introduced Canoe Polo to the multi-sport event – a decision that proved fortuitous for both the home nation and paddler Tonie Lenz. She struck gold in the first women’s final and has continued to dominate the top step of the podium ever since, the only minor blemish being the 2013 silver in Kaohsiung. Both the German women and men have been unbeaten for the last two editions. If Tonie makes it to Birmingham, she will be looking for a remarkable fifth medal from five different editions.
Even though Russia has won more editions of The World Games than any other nation, it has only the fourth best record in amassing silverware. Russia tends to do equally well in Finswimming and the various Gymnastics disciplines. Russian teenagers impressed at the last edition in Wroclaw; the then 15-year-old Ekaterina Mihaylushkina was fast enough in the pool to bag three medals. The Averina twins, who are three years older, both made four visits to the Rhythmic Gymnastics podium. One of Arina or Dina could well arrive in Alabama having been crowned the Overall Champion at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, but which one? Despite the rise of the youngsters, the most impressive performance in Poland 2017 was that of the veteran Sumo Wrestler Anna Zhigalova. She has stepped into the dojo in three editions of The World Games and has remained unbeaten in both the Heavyweight and Open categories. If she travels to America next year, she will be in her forties, but such is her dominance that gold medals seven and eight are very realistic prospects.
Despite having invented the concept of modern multi-sport games, France has never actually hosted an edition of The World Games. This lack of home advantage has not affected the nation too much, as historically they are the fifth best country in winning medals. Much of their hopes of advancing their tally in Birmingham will rest on the capable shoulders of two world-class athletes in Lifesaving. In the last two editions of The World Games, Justine Weyders and Magalie Rousseau have both heard La Marseillaise ring out on five occasions, and then for good measure have both stood on the podium for an additional time.
London was the second host of The World Games, and its secondary police force the City of London Police holds an unusual sporting record. They are the current Olympic champions in Tug Of War, as the sport stopped featuring in the Olympic Games after the 1920 edition in Antwerp. British pullers continue to dominate the sport, and their regular medals at The World Games have helped to raise Great Britain to seventh in the all-time list.
Two places below them are Ukraine. One name instantly springs to mind when considering the East European nation’s performances at the multi-sport festival. It is, of course, Larysa Soloviova whose superlative performances in Powerlifting have meant that she was deservedly voted as the third-greatest Athlete of The World Games. She has competed at four different editions of the event. No matter where she has competed, the outcome has always been the same; the most prestigious medal has always been placed on her powerful shoulders. In July 2022 in Birmingham, Alabama, destiny awaits; no female athlete has ever won gold at five editions. Will Larysa make history?
Spain are just outside the top ten in the all-time ranking. Expect their charge for glory in the American South to be led by people named Sanchez. Veteran Billiards player Daniel Sanchez won his first gold medal in Akita, Japan in 2001 and then remarkably, after having successfully retained his title in 2005, triumphed again in Wroclaw in 2017. Karate superstar Sandra Sanchez reached the final in Poland and could, if all goes well in Tokyo next month, be travelling to the States as the newly crowned Olympic Champion.
Sweden is twelfth in terms of productivity at The World Games. They tend to do well at sports popular in the Nordic nation. In the marvellous Floorball final in Wroclaw, they successfully came back from an early Swiss onslaught. Tove Alexandersson is on her day pretty much unbeatable in Orienteering. Look out too for Sofia Olofsson, who reigns supreme in the brutal combat sport of MuayThai.
The Netherlands occupy the next step on the ladder. Podium success has been limited since The Hague hosted the fourth edition of The World Games in 1993. There is one sport, though, in which the Dutch are totally dominant, and that is Korfball. The team holds the record for the longest winning streak at The World Games, having never been beaten at their favourite sport since it was introduced in 1985. Should Suzanne Struik, who has come back from retirement, make it on the plane to Birmingham, she is in line to collect her fourth consecutive gold medal.
Neighbours Belgium may be historically ranked as 17th, but there is potential in their team to impress in Alabama. In Jiu-Jitsu, Amal Amjahid has been World champion since 2015 and looks likely to repeat her double gold haul from Wroclaw. In Speed Skating, the country can call upon two exceptional athletes. Bart Swings has topped the podium in both Cali in 2013 and Wroclaw in 2017, whilst Sandrine Tas only competed in the latter edition but she sure made her presence count, being involved in six medal ceremonies. A similar haul next year would make her the most decorated female athlete in the history of The World Games.
Like Bart Swings, Switzerland athlete Matthias Kyburz has triumphed in both Colombia and Poland as part of the country’s accomplished Orienteering team. In a country that is dedicated to watchmaking and capturing the moment, the Swiss Fistball team will believe that in Birmingham it will be their time to deliver a long-awaited gold, having appeared in four finals but never emerging victorious.
Denmark enjoyed their time in Wroclaw, amassing a record golden haul to lift them into the top 20. In Birmingham, the athlete most likely to triumph is Mads Pedersen, who is the Canoe Slalom World Champion.
The World Games is all about the best athletes competing against each other in a spirit of friendship. Hopefully many of these exceptional athletes will qualify for the Birmingham 2022 edition and will provide many dramatic memorable performances for the fans in the arenas and those watching across the globe.
Brian Salmon for 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.