A thank you to Kazan and hope for growth at the Universiade

A thank you to Kazan and hope for growth at the Universiade

steve kelleyBy Steve Kelley, USA Team Columnist

 Kazan, Russia (July 19, 2013) – Standing on the third green at the Kazan Golf Club, overlooking the Volga River and the spectacular Sviyazhsk Monastery, I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect way to end this three-week visit to Central Russia.

About a half-hour drive from the heart of this soulful city, the golf course, the only one in Kazan, is much like the city itself in that these hills and valleys around which it has been shaped are more than a thousand years old, but the course with its challenging rolling fairways and daunting doglegs, is new and creative and full of hope.

Kazan and the World University Games were a perfect match. I’m sure the future Games in Korea and Taipei will have their own unique charm, but this city-on-the-move, was ideal for hosting this event.

This place was so welcoming, so enthusiastic, so absolutely prepared to party. I fell for it from my first trip around the city. It is a city of juxtapositions. Very old and very new. Very conservative and very progressive. It is full of energy and also quiet and serene. It is hip and it is scholarly. It is Muslim and Russian Orthodox. It is old Tartastan and it is new Russia.

From the Opening Ceremonies in the glittering new Kazan Arena, to swimming events in the gleaming and loud Aquatics Center, to the women’s gold medal basketball game in the cramped Basket Hall, there was the feeling of a festival.

Every night, the streets were filled with people, streaming into the park in back of the Kremlin that featured music, interactive games and a nightly performance by Cirque du Soleil. Every night, the terrace restaurant at the Courtyard Marriott, overlooking the brilliantly lit Kremlin, was alive and crowded. All of the restaurants and shops, benches and clubs on Bauman Street, a pedestrian-only street in the heart of the city, were buzzing with life.

Obviously Kazan was presenting itself in its most complimentary way for the Games. The streets were clean and safe. The traffic (despite the hyper-aggressive drivers) was manageable. The police presence was obvious, but not obtrusive.

But there is no doubt this is a city with a vision and we who visited here were fortunate to see how dramatically its vision is taking shape.

I came here clueless about Kazan. I’m leaving feeling like a spokesperson.

And I also came here without knowing many of the U.S. athletes who were participating here, but I’m leaving feeling as if I’ve met some of the most thoughtful, appreciative, dogged and talented athletes I’ve interviewed in my 40 years in the business.

Luke Hancock, a guard on the U.S. men’s basketball team and the flag bearer at the Opening Ceremonies, came here still grieving after the loss of his father to cancer, just days before he left for Kazan. He came, in large part, to honor his father’s memory.

Rower James Letten survived a broken femur and saw his hopes of a volleyball scholarship broken as profoundly as the bone. But instead of sulking and wondering why such a thing happened to him, he found rowing and, in a mere 2 ½ years, made himself into an international caliber competitor.

Kendrick Farris earned a bronze medal in weightlifting and talked about how his sport helped give him a purpose and kept him out of trouble, while growing up in a Shreveport, La. neighborhood nicknamed “Stoner Hill.” Now he gives back to his sport and his city, still training and teaching at the hometown gym he likes to call the Gumbo Club, because of its mixture of races and beliefs.

Bria Hartley explained that the U.S. women’s basketball team was able to come together so quickly because the players understood early that the privilege of playing for their country was bigger than any of their egos. They played for the team and the U.S. and not for their separate glories. And swimmer Laura Sogar, rather than complain about cramped living quarters, said that living four to a room in the Athlete’s Village, gave her a chance to get to know competitors she had heard about and read about, but before this event, she’d never met.

There was a depth to the character of so many of these athletes. And I’m grateful that they were willing to share their thoughts and experiences with me.

A highlight for me was meeting Arash Soofiani, the one-man member of the U.S. sambo team, who was overwhelmed by the late-night welcoming party at Kazan International Airport when he arrived for his competition. I saw him a couple of days later, among the crowd of some 20,000 people at the Tartastan festival, Saban Tuy (Festival of the Plow), the annual celebration of the end of harvest season. Arash wrapped me in a bear hug and thanked me for writing the story about him.

Still, as inspiring and entertaining as these 27th Games, (the rest of the world calls the W.U.G., the Universiade) have been, there are flaws that need to be addressed.

There has to be a more stringent execution of the rules of competition. The playing field is not level. The Russians stacked their rosters will a lot of professionals and national team members. In some sports, the competition looked like the Russian men and women against the rest of the world’s boys and girls.

And while it was a treat for me to see the power and finesse of the Russian volleyball team and to watch the smooth and clutch performances of NBA-bound Sergey Karasev, the Russian teams, in many sports, seemed to be unfairly loaded.

As for the United States, all of the governing bodies should take more interest in this event. The U.S. should have sent a gymnastics team. It should have sent men’s and women’s soccer teams. It needed to send a fuller roster of track and field athletes. I enjoyed watching the players on Division-III Springfield College’s men’s volleyball team, as they measured themselves against the powerful Russians, but the U.S. should have delivered more competitive men’s and women’s volleyball teams to Kazan.

USA Basketball has to find a way to give its W.U.G. men’s team a competitive edge. Create more continuity as its younger teams progress, keeping the players together as they get older. Give the team more time together before it comes to the Games. Give it an exhibition tour. Give it a chance to get to know each other.

The U.S. women’s team practically did the impossible, winning the gold here, beating the Russians on their home floor and playing with a cohesion that belied its limited practice time. But its win was all the more impressive when you consider the time restraints imposed on it.

I understand that other world championship events often compete for athletes with the World University Games, but even with the world championships approaching, the U.S. swim team here was large and competitive and made up of college athletes, the way the Games were intended.

“We’re the future stars,” Sogar said after her silver medal performance.

That’s how these Games should be considered. They are the first steps for many of these athletes, on their way to the Olympic Games. Or else they are the Olympic-like experience many athletes wouldn’t otherwise get. These are, as silver medalist tennis player Sabrina Santamaria said, “The College Olympics.”

The importance is undeniable. Even U.S. ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul advocated for better funding and for sending stronger and deeper Games.

Unlike the 20-foot putt I surveyed on the third hole at Kazan Golf Club, these Games have a future. This is an event that needs to grow and needs more support in the United States as it attempts to grow.

Like this beautiful, energetic city, Universiade is full of potential. The U.S. should learn from Kazan and be unafraid to grow.