A Writer Takes A Wondrous Walk on the World Stage

A Writer Takes A Wondrous Walk on the World Stage

By Steve Kelley, USA Team Columnist

         KAZAN, Russia (July 6, 2013) – Maybe it was the wall of sound that hit me, when I marched through the tunnel and into the blissful cacophony of Kazan Arena.

Or maybe it was the kaleidoscope of bright colors, the reds and blues and yellows and whites that rolled down like psychedelic waves from the highest reaches of this new jewel of a soccer stadium, that for this one night, was changed into a senses-overloading swirl of light and sound and whirling, human motion.

But there was almost something transforming about participating in Saturday night (and Sunday morning’s) Opening Ceremonies for the World University Games. It was an inspiring night.


With apologies to Carly Simon, I walked into this party late Saturday night, like I was walking onto a yacht. Seriously. The floor of the arena had turned into a circular lake with a large, round video screen, whose high-definition clarity seemed sharper than real life.

And as we walked around the artificial lake, we in the United States delegation, felt like we were walking along the deck of a luxury liner. I felt like I was in a movie.

Now let me backup.

Yes that’s right, me, a middling athlete at best in my youth, and now years past my prime, marched in the World University Games’ Opening Ceremonies, in front of 50,000 people, including Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Wearing my USA gear, waving to the crowd as if I were Michael Phelps or Magic Johnson, looking up at the officials’ box (where I imagined Putin had his binoculars on me and wondered to himself, “What’s that geezer doing in games meant for university students?”) I had this incredible out-of-body experience.

Why was I down here? Why were these people waving to me, making me feel honored to be part of this event?

I felt like an interloper. I certainly didn’t deserve to be in the same company and on the same stage with these athletes, some of the best in the U.S. They had earned their way to Kazan. Me?  I merely was invited.

But I wasn’t about to turn down this opportunity. This was my Carl Lewis moment. This was as close as I would ever come to experiencing an Olympic-sized adrenaline rush.

So this is how it feels to march into an Olympic stadium, the most welcoming kind of a venue in all of sports. This is what Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Bob Mathias, Muhammad Ali and Nadia Comaneci experienced.

I looked into the stands and saw the joy on the faces in the audience, waving back at me as if I were, well, someone. For a 40-year veteran of the cynical world of sportswriting, this was a sobering.

I broke free from my line of marchers, ran over to a dugout where young kids hungrily reached their hands toward me and I ran down their line of hands, low-fiving them like Kevin Durant before the start of an NBA playoff game.

There was this kind of unconditional love from the Russian audience that was being showered on athletes from all parts of the globe and I was in the middle of it, appreciating what they were feeling, taking the same kind of emotional thrill ride athletes have taken in these kinds of ceremonies, throughout the history of the Olympic Games.

And make no mistake, these ceremonies compared favorably in their all-encompassing style and grandeur with any Olympic Game.

If you wanted to know how big the World University Games is to the rest of the world, this explained it. If you’d never heard of Kazan, this show told you how remarkable this city is.

This was an historical moment in world sports. Thirty-three years ago, the United States boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow. And the WUG is the first large, multi-sport event the U.S. has participated in, in Russia, since.

Among the marchers in the U.S. delegation on Saturday was beach volleyball coach Anna Biller-Collier, who in 1980 was an aspiring Olympian. She was at the Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, preparing to run in the 800 meters when she heard her Olympic dream had been crushed by a political decision.

Listening to her talk about her experiences in 1980, hearing the disappointment she still feels more than three decades later, made it apparent how cathartic and important these Games are to the future of athletic competitions between the U.S. and Russia.

I’ve covered nine Olympics Games. I’ve seen Opening Ceremonies from Lillehammer to Beijing, Atlanta to Sydney. I was prepared on Saturday to watch something that would feel like Beijing Lite, a pleasant, little Olympic facsimile.

It was much more.

Acrobats were suspended like puppets from the roof and danced overhead, around the stadium as if they were floating in air. Dancers dressed like swans twirled in the ankle deep water.

The ceremonies celebrated Russian history, science and thought – Lenin and Yuri Gagarin, Pushkin and Andrei Sakharov. There was a dramatic, visual and operatic tribute to Russia’s sacrifices and its role in ending World War II.

Sparkling, white, gyro-scoping cages with more acrobats were followed by more aerial dancers, hanging from artificial clouds. It was a lot to take in, but it was four hours that felt as if they went by in a Moscow minute.

In the water and in the air, all of the dancers moved to opera music sung by some of the country’s most renowned singers, including Dmitry Khvorostovsky and Kazan native Aida Gavfullina.

The stages were fluid, one group seamlessly replaced another. The show was operatic and gymnastic. It was ballet and pyrotechnics. The Bolshoi meets Cirque du Soleil.

It was Exhibit A for how big this event is to the rest of the world and how, with more funding and more awareness from other U.S. athletic governing bodies, it can become in the United States.

I’ve seen an archer in Barcelona in 1992, shoot a flaming arrow from the center of the stadium, sending it over the cauldron and lighting the Olympic flame.

I saw Ali, a specter in white, standing at the top of the stadium in 1996 with the torch in his hand, set to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta.

And I watched the incredible spectacle of dancers walking like so many Wallendas on the top of the Egg Nest’s roof in Beijing.

Saturday night’s show was equal to them all.

I’m not sure how I got so fortunate to be a small part of all of this, not sure why those multi-colored rows and rows of spectators waved so enthusiastically at me as I took my stroll around the stadium.

But they did. And from the floor of the stadium I saw the wonderful spectacle that the World University Games has become.

Take a look, America.