In 2009 Artistic Roller Skater Matteo Guarise won gold at The World Games in Kaohsiung, Chinese Taipei. He then swapped his roller skates for ice skates, and partnered with fellow Italian Nicole Della Monica to compete in pairs figure skating. His dream of competing in the Olympics was fulfilled in Sochi, but a pre-games injury hampered him and the couple finished 18th. South Korea provided a more fulfilling experience, the pair just missing out on a medal as Italy claimed fourth place in the Team event.
The International Skating Union recognises that there are many talented athletes competing in inline speed skating. The ISH wanted to increase the diversity of the countries represented at the Winter Olympics, so they introduced the ISU Transition Development Programme. One beneficiary was Pedro Causil, a two-time champion of The World Games who had struck gold in both Chinese Taipei (2009) and his native Colombia (2013). Watch Pedro explain what it means to him to be the first Colombian speed skater to appear at the Olympics.
Tug of War – a culture as well as a sport
Sports in The World Games programme cannot be played on either ice or snow. Therefore it was a huge surprise to repeatedly see in Korea a sport that has featured in every edition of The World Games since its inception in 1981. Even more astonishing is the fact that the sport has its own museum in the PyeongChang region! Tug Of War last appeared as a sport in the Olympics in the 1920 Games, held in the Belgian city of Antwerp. Now, nearly a century later, it was making its reappearance at the Olympics, albeit as part of the Cultural Olympiad that runs in parallel to the sports competitions. The cultural expression of Tug of War as practiced in East Asia is markedly different to the competitive sport at The World Games, but the aim is the same – to drag your opponent over the line.
All the participants wear brightly-coloured traditional costumes. The massive white rope (with the dimensions of a tree trunk) is threaded through a wooden pulley system where it is separated out into strands. A team of pullers will then attach themselves to the strands and, urged on by massive Korean drums and the encouragement of the brightly-robed ‘pulling General’ (who will often be found standing on the rope!), attempt to show their strength. In 2016, UNESCO awarded pulling sports in East Asia with World Cultural Heritage Status. To celebrate this achievement, the Koreans selected the town of Samcheok (just to the South of Gangneung, where the indoor Olympic competitions were held) to be the site of a new museum showcasing this unusual tradition. With this type of history, it is no surprise that an Asian nation dominates the sport. If, at Birmingham 2021, Tug of War maintains its ever-present status at The World Games, the women of Chinese Taipei are in line to win their fifth consecutive gold medal. Will host nation USA be able to prevent them from accomplishing this marvellous achievement?
Chinese Taipei skaters
It is not just in Tug Of War where athletes from Chinese Taipei excel; they are also incredibly good inline speed skaters. Yu-Ting Huang gave the home supporters plenty to cheer about during the 2009 edition of The World Games in Kaohsiung, topping the podium on three separate occasions. Four years later she followed that up with gold in Cali, Colombia. Like Pedro Causil, the ISU recognised her talent and offered her a place in their transition programme. It was a real pleasure to chat with her and witness her infectious enthusiasm for The World Games and being at the Winter Olympics.
Mass-start Speed skating
All these highlights in PyeongChang were special; the greatest moment though for me was destined for the penultimate day of competition. Many of the speed skating competitions at the Winter Olympics rely on beating the clock rather than a physical opponent, which leads to the racing mostly occurring in the athlete's mind. The speed skater wishes to avoid the twin perils of starting too quickly or finishing with energy left to burn. The introduction of the mass-start discipline to the Olympic speed skating programme would provide the perfect opportunity for Bart Swings to mount a challenge for the podium places. Anyone who has seen Swings win any of his five consecutive inline Berlin Marathons, or witnessed the elimination races in Wroclaw, would have known that the Belgian skater excels in head to head races against a large field.
The qualifying round went according to plan, Swings taking one of the intermediate sprints to guarantee his place in the final. Interestingly the heat was won by Peter Michael, a fellow Wroclaw medallist. Given that the young New Zealander finished fourth in one of his events in South Korea, we could be in for some epic racing in Birmingham, Alabama, should the pair be given the opportunity to face each other at the 2021 edition of The World Games. In the Olympic final, Swings produced a near perfect race and tasted the joy of having a silver medal placed around his neck. As his medal was Belgium's first for 20 years, the skater has become an overnight celebrity in his homeland and the subject of numerous interviews. Bart was also personally congratulated by the King of Belgium.
All these amazing experiences of The World Games family in PyeongChang illustrate the mutually beneficial relationship that exists between the International World Games Association and the International Olympic Committee. For many athletes and sports, The World Games represents their only opportunity to experience a major global multi-sport event and the unique international atmosphere of an athletes village. The event also provides opportunities to excel and be considered for Olympic participation. For some of the athletes like Swings and his fellow inline skaters, this may involve switching to a related sport on the Olympic programme.
Stars of Wroclaw 2017 such as Karate athlete Ryo Kiyuna and Speed Climber Reza Alipourshenazandifar will also get the chance to take part in the Olympic Games and march out at the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony. Thus The World Games is not only a chance to witness spectacular sporting action, but also to see present and future Olympians. How many stars of the Olympics will you identify at Birmingham 2021?