In about 2,379 days, the 11th edition of the International World Games will be getting started at Legion Field. Maybe it was, among other things, a healthy dose of Southern hospitality that brought the 2021 World Games to Birmingham, International World Games Association (IWGA) Vice President Max Bishop said over the weekend.
“We certainly have heard about the Alabama handshake,” Bishop said with a strong British accent. “When you shake somebody’s hand in Alabama, that means something is going to happen and we believe that,” he continued, referring to the agreement reached by the delegation from Birmingham and IWGA officials to bring the Games to the Magic City.
The next step, Bishop said, will be the ratification of the “organizer agreement” during the IWGA’s annual meeting, which will take place in Sochi, Russia in April. Though he did not mention specifics, Bishop does not foresee any complications with the terms reached by Birmingham and the IWGA. That means that in six years, the World Games will be back in the United States for the first time since 1981, when the inaugural games were held in Santa Clara, California.
So what exactly are the World Games? What does this mean for Birmingham? And what in the wide world of sports is korfball?
Keeping in line with the tradition of the Olympics, the World Games feature athletes from around the globe who compete in various sports. However, unlike the Olympics, the sports featured in the World Games are a little more obscure. Events like fistball, korfball, squash and canoe polo are a few of the sports on the docket. There are also sports like lacrosse, archery and bowling, which are more well-known.
Korfball, for example, is a sport that features two teams of eight players (often teams are mixed-gender) passing around a ball that resembles a soccer ball in hopes of tossing it through a basket attached to an 11.5 foot pole. To Americans, it may look like a game made up by a substitute gym teacher to keep the kids busy, but in places like Europe, primarily in the Netherlands, korfball is all the rage, Bishop said.
This is what makes the World Games so special, he explained. It introduces people to things they never even dreamed existed.
“A lot of people won’t know the sports that are in our games because they’re not the kind of sports that get mainstream television coverage,” Bishop said. “But I think that is something of an advantage. It’s something new. Take competitive climbing, for instance. It’s two people side-by-side rushing up this wall like spiders. It’s just extraordinary to see the speed in which they can climb up the walls. It’s a really good crowd sport.”
City officials estimate the games will have a $256.5 million economic impact in Birmingham. According to Bishop, roughly 3,500 athletes and an additional 1,000 trainers, coaches and other officials from more than 100 countries will converge on Birmingham in August 2021.
With the issues that have surrounded public transportation in Birmingham, can the city’s infrastructure support an event of this magnitude? Will the city’s $3.5 million expenditure during the bid process — and the additional $75 million in public and private contributions that have been allocated to make improvements to facilities — be money well spent?
Let the games begin…in six years
“We’re ready to host these games today,” Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin said when he returned from Lausanne, Switzerland, where he and delegates from Birmingham went to meet with the IWGA officials last week.
“Coming away with the news that Birmingham would be the host city for the 2021 was just wonderful,” Austin said. “For those naysayers that said Birmingham was not able to compete in getting regional events, the city of Birmingham has proven that we are able to compete on an international playing field.”
Bishop agrees with Austin on Birmingham being ready to host the games, which he said was one of the factors that set Birmingham apart from the two other cities that were in the running: Ufa, Russia and Lima, Peru. Both Ufa and Lima have larger populations than Birmingham, but the conditions of Birmingham’s athletic facilities were better suited to host the events, Bishop explained.
“We’re always very concerned with the environmental impact. We don’t want to oblige the city to build new facilities just for the games and then [have that] become some sort of white elephant. Birmingham has got plenty of good facilities,” Bishop said.
In addition to that, Bishop said that both the business and political powers that be in Birmingham showed overwhelming support for the games.
“We have the feeling that all levels of government support Birmingham’s bid. The National Olympic Committee supported it as well. But in particular, the business community in Birmingham was fully behind the idea. We met quite a number of the CEOs of big companies there, and they were all very willing to lend support, both financial and other ways,” Bishop said.
Austin was quick to mention that this is an opportunity for Birmingham to seriously consider a light rail system. Although, he added, the $75 million that has been allocated for improvements would not cover the cost of the rail system. “If I had a magic wand, I’d spend that money on a rail system,” Austin said. “But unfortunately that’s not the way it is.
“But now we can take a serious look at transit. And not just more buses and things like that, but let’s seriously look into the idea of a light rail system and all the opportunities we will have with all the people that will be traveling to the CrossPlex and traveling from the airport. There’s an opportunity for us to really start talking about neighborhood revitalization, especially ones that feel left out or neglected, by providing a light rail system to the people who really need it.”
He said that the impact of a system like this would reach far beyond the World Games. Previous discussions that have taken place about the possibility of a rail system, Austin said, have been geared towards connecting Highway 280 to downtown Birmingham. However, Austin believes the hypothetical rail line should head west.
“I understand that people have always said there is a need for transit, and we could certainly put the first light rail system going down [Highway] 280, but I would argue that the first line needs to go into our communities here in Birmingham, starting on the western side of town,” he said.
“Let’s build a rail system from downtown Birmingham to the Crossplex. Not only does that connect directly the Crossplex to downtown, but more importantly it connects the people who need transit the most to a reliable resource,” Austin continued. “Then you’ll really start to see the economic development start to happen along every stop on the rail system.”
Though city officials have estimated the economic impact the games would have on the city, Austin said he didn’t know exactly how that $256.5 million number was formulated.
“Well, it’s basically looking at how many people will be coming to the city and how many dollars will be spent,” he said. “How many people will be staying in our hotels, buying food, shopping and drinking in our bars? The last World Games in Colombia had half a million people show up. We’re expecting something similar.” In addition to that, the World Games in Birmingham are expected to bring in an additional $25 million in state sales tax.
Efforts to reach Tom Barnett, the city of Birmingham’s director of finance, for clarification on the projected economic impact went unanswered.
Is it good for Birmingham?
Mark Conrad is an associate professor of law and ethics at Fordham University in New York City. Conrad also runs the sports business program at Fordham and knows firsthand the difficulties of bringing a large-scale, international event to any city.
“I’m not a big fan of cities bidding for the Olympics because of all the issues there,” Conrad said, noting that the cost and logistics of running security for an event like that become exponentially complicated. “But I think for Birmingham getting these games there can be a lot of advantages if the cost can be kept down.
“For one, Birmingham is a great sports town. I think that with Birmingham, this is an opportunity to gain some international reach and to market itself. Potentially it could lead to some economic growth in the metropolitan area,” Conrad said.
Conrad raised a question: how will Birmingham guarantee the $75 million that has been allocated? Will the public and private contributions actually follow through with their pledges? It’s a point that Bishop also made, making sure that that Birmingham officials will “walk the walk and not just talk the talk.” Bishop remains optimistic about the financial contributions that the city has pledged.
“It’s not an astounding sum of money, but it’s also not little,” Conrad said. “But let’s say that something happens in the economy and all of a sudden businesses and sponsors don’t want to pay it. Who is going to be left holding the bill?”
There are certain risks involved with committing this kind of money to an event that is so far in the future, Conrad noted. “Because it’s so far in the future, you never know what could happen. The sad thing is it could be out of control of the best organizers, the best mayor. All it could take is there being some kind of national disaster and then the State Department says, ‘You know what, we’re going to cut back on immigration and people coming into the country.’ Or it could be bad weather. You really just don’t know,” he said.
Despite his cautious position, Conrad said he can see possible benefits for Birmingham hosting the World Games as long as the finances are handled appropriately.
Bishop said the IWGA is confident that Birmingham will be able to handle the responsibility of the World Games. After all, that is a big factor the selection committee looks at when deciding on a host city.
“Financial security is another factor we look at. We want to be sure that the budget that the organizers have proposed in the bid book is realistic and that the various people who are going to put the money up, whether it’s public authorities or sponsors, that these people are really going to put the money up.
“We want to be sure that we can work well with the local management team. One of the things that we evaluated was we sat for a whole day and a half with the people we would be working with in Birmingham. We want to know we can we trust them, and we feel as though we can in Birmingham,” Bishop said, referring back to the “Alabama handshake.”
Past World Games
In 2013, the World Games landed in Cali, Colombia, a city roughly the size of Birmingham nestled in a valley near Colombia’s Pacific coast.
“They know how to throw a party down there in Colombia,” Bishop said. “There were about 500,000 spectators that came to all the events. It was a really big deal there. Cali, Columbia is roughly the same size as Birmingham and virtually the whole population turned out. It was one big party. There was lots of salsa dancing and celebrations of all kinds.”
Another thing that makes the World Games special, Bishop said, is the fact that virtually all the athletes are amateurs. That is, they are not paid to play. They are just passionate about their respective sports.
“For them it’s a really, really big deal and everyone is extremely pleased to be there. I know from what we’ve seen from Alabama hospitality they are going to have a good time and they’re going to enjoy the beer,” Bishop said.
Steve Rajeff is the record holder for the most medals in the World Games. In a career spanning several decades, Rajeff racked up an impressive 25 medals for various tournament casting events at the World Games and is widely considered one of the best in the world. He competed in the inaugural 1981 Santa Clara games and ended his run after the 2001 Akita, Japan games. But he didn’t stop because he didn’t qualify after 2001 — the IWGA just did away with the casting events.
Despite not competing anymore, Rajeff is glad the games have returned to the country he represented on the podium. Now living in San Francisco, Rajeff explained what it was like to compete at the highest level in his sport of tournament casting.
“It’s a great venue for meeting competitors from other sports. Some of them are a little obscure and things you may not have ever heard of, kind of like casting,” Rajeff said.
The casting events are what one would imagine, he said. “You take fishing rods for accuracy and long distance competitions and see who is the best,” Rajeff said, adding that he would still compete if the World Games brought back his sport.
After the 2001 games in Japan, the IWGA disbanded the tournament casting events because of low attendance. But in Alabama, the home of the Bassmaster Classic, chances are pretty good that people would turn out for this event, Rajeff noted.
He said that in order to qualify for the World Games, each athlete goes through a serious of regional, tournament-style competitions in their home country, not unlike the Olympic Games.
Rajeff recalled the first World Games competition he qualified for in 1981. During the opening ceremonies, the competitors for the casting event were lined up next to the bodybuilders. “The guy who was holding up the bodybuilding flag right next to me was Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Rajeff said with a chuckle.
You just never know who you’re going to meet at these things, Rajeff said. “If nothing else, it’s a great chance to experience something you’ve never been a part of before.”