This has been a busy time for Kazakhstan on the global stage. In the last few days, it has been Astana which, because of the Syria peace talks, has found itself in the global spotlight. As it prepares to welcome young athletes from across the world, it is now Almaty which, for very different and much lighter reasons, finds itself the focus of international hopes.
The Winter Universiade is, by any reckoning, a major sporting event.
Around 2,500 university students from nearly 60 countries are coming to Kazakhstan’s largest city for a competition only surpassed in scale by the Winter Olympics itself. It is the 28th occasion the games have been held and seems certain to be the biggest.
If the effort that has gone into its preparation is any guide, it should also be among the most memorable. A huge amount of hard work has gone into ensuring everything will be ready since the city – the first in the former Soviet bloc to host the Winter Universiade – was awarded the games just over five years ago.
Almaty was helped by having a rich winter sports heritage on which to build, including the legendary Medeu Ice Rink where many world records have been set. Other venues were already in place for the successful Asian Winter Games in 2011.
These have all been refurbished, if necessary, ahead of the Universiade. But we have also seen investment in new facilities, including a new athletes’ village to house 3,000 – the first to be built specifically for the student games – as well as new venues, such as the 12,000-seat Almaty Arena.
Almaty’s preparations have won warm praise from international delegations visiting to monitor progress. But the city can also count on natural advantages as well as human effort to ensure the Games will live long in memory.
Almaty’s spectacular setting, surrounded by majestic mountains, will add hugely to the enjoyment of the athletes and thousands of visitors. So, too, will be the fact that this geography will spare them long journeys from accommodation to competition which are so often the hallmark of winter events.
They will also be thrilled to find so many enthusiastic and knowledgeable spectators. As any visitor to Kazakhstan quickly discovers, playing, watching and talking about sport is a real passion among our people. They will turn out in large numbers not only to cheer on their own country’s sports men and women but to enjoy high-level competition on their doorstep. It will be another factor which will make the 2017 Universiade so special.
Importantly, Almaty’s preparations have gone well beyond just ensuring the games are a great success and those taking part leave with a lifetime of memories. There has been plenty of thought, too, given to making sure the Universiade leaves a lasting legacy for the city and country as a whole.
The athletes’ village, for example, will be turned into a new residential complex. New sporting facilities will be used to help swell mass participation in sport as well as provide a platform to attract high-profile international competitions and events of all kindsin the future.
Global media coverage over the next fortnight will also provide a major boost to Kazakhstan’s fast-growing tourism industry. While the Universiade does not, of course, attract the global media afforded to the Olympics, its competitions will be watched by many hundreds of millions in an estimated 80 countries.
It is a tremendous opportunity to showcase what the city, surrounding area and country as a whole has to offer. It seems certain to lead to many more foreign visitors in the years ahead to sample for themselves its ski slopes, to hike in the mountains in the summer and enjoy the many attractions of Almaty itself.
Hosting the Games will bring many rewards for Kazakhstan in the years ahead. But for the moment, attention rightly must be centred on the young athletes themselves.
Achieving the level needed to qualify and compete will have required real sacrifice to fit in hours of training alongside their university studies. We wish all competitors a successful games and hope, as the 2017 Universiade slogan declares, the next few days gives them the platform to spread their wings in sport and, more importantly, in life.