Nancy Gillen

Upon being informed that I would be travelling to Krasnoyarsk for the International University Sport Federation's (FISU) 2019 Winter Universiade, my first instinct was to google the exact geographical location of the Russian city.

Telling my friends and family the news elicited the same response, suggesting that the existence of Krasnoyarsk is not common knowledge to many. 

For those who are still unaware, Krasnoyarsk is an industrial powerhouse in the middle of Siberia, around 2,500 miles east of Moscow.

It is currently hosting the first multi-sport event to take place in Russia since the infamous 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi, giving the city the chance to not only put its name on the map but also become an established venue for prestigious sporting events. 

This is the view of FISU's secretary general and chief executive, Eric Saintrond, anyway. In the competition's opening press conference, Saintrond described how the Universiade can be used as a launchpad to hold bigger events.

As examples, he cited Moscow hosting the 1973 Summer Universiade and then the 1980 Olympic Games, with the same happening in Beijing in 2001 and 2008. Knowing that it would be a stretch to suggest that Krasnoyarsk could host an Olympics any time soon, Saintrond also spoke about the Summer Universiade held by the Russian city of Kazan in 2013.

"By putting on this event, you're building excellent experience," he said.

"With a young, professional team so actively involved in hosting this event, Krasnoyarsk is setting itself up for long-lasting social legacy benefits.

"You only have to look to Kazan.

"The team there is now putting up the FINA World Swimming Championships.

"The FIFA World Cup this past summer used the same team that was in place back in 2008 in preparation for the Kazan 2013 Summer Universiade."

FISU's secretary general and chief executive, Eric Saintrond, discussed how the Universiade could be used as a launchpad by Krasnoyarsk to host larger events ©Krasnoyarsk 2019
FISU's secretary general and chief executive, Eric Saintrond, discussed how the Universiade could be used as a launchpad by Krasnoyarsk to host larger events ©Krasnoyarsk 2019

My own experience of Krasnoyarsk confirms that, although the Olympics may be slightly too ambitious, the city undoubtedly has the capability to host more international sporting events.

It is obvious that the city has prepared well for the Universiade, including significant investment in venues and a new bridge, as well as the reconstruction of the road network.

Every venue here is impressive and boasts modernities that makes the life of a sports journalist a lot easier - namely accessible plug sockets and a strong internet connection.

It was promised that it would take no more than an hour to travel between each venue on the free shuttle buses provided for media and officials, but I have found that journey times are even less than this, at around 20 minutes.

I was given a tour of the Universiade Village, situated on the Siberian Federal University's campus, and was shown that Krasnoyarsk can accommodate thousands of athletes, as well as provide excellent medical facilities and services such as barbershops and beauty salons.

A five-minute walk from the Universiade Village is the Sopka Cluster, an extremely impressive venue and home to the freestyle skiing and snowboard events. I may have been influenced by the picturesque scene of the sun in a clear blue sky setting behind the ski slopes when I arrived, but the facilities on offer could see easily see the Sopka Cluster become a stop on the International Ski Federation World Cup circuit. 

In fact, Krasnoyarsk would be the perfect venue for one- or two-day competitions that are part of a prestigious wider tour. Organisers should look at the Siberian city as ready-made for such events, complete with a previously unreached audience receptive to new sports.

The Sopka Cluster, host to the freestyle skiing and snowboard events at the Universiade, is an impressive facility ©Krasnoyarsk 2019
The Sopka Cluster, host to the freestyle skiing and snowboard events at the Universiade, is an impressive facility ©Krasnoyarsk 2019

For many athletes, Krasnoyarsk could also act as a springboard for their careers.

Previous Universiade stars have used the competition to progress to a higher level, with more than 100 former participants going on to win Olympic medals at Sochi 2014 and Pyeongchang 2018. Universiade ambassador Alexei Yagudin, the 2002 Olympic champion and a four-time world champion in figure skating, agreed with this sentiment during the opening press conference.

"At its very minimum, the Winter Universiade is a springboard to elite sports," he said.

"As a father of two young daughters, I know what sports can mean for their future.

"For them, it's so important to take part in events like this."

It is clearly important to FISU that the Universiade is seen as a pathway to elite sport. What I have found curious about the event, however, is the number of athletes competing that are already well established in their respective sports.

For example, the freestyle skiing aerials event was won by world champions in both the men's and women's competition, Maxim Burov of Russia and Alexandra Romanovskaya of Belarus. South Korea's Kim A-lang, a double Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic champion, took two gold medals in the women's short track.

There is the argument that these athletes are taking the spotlight away from fresh talent who are only just emerging onto the international stage. FISU may want to think about enforcing some kind of cut-off point regarding the professional level of each athlete to ensure the less experienced are getting the exposure they need to progress in their careers.

For many, however, the reputation of their opponents has not been an issue and upsets have occurred regularly throughout the competition.

Poland's Oskar Kwiatowski defeated world champion, Russian flagbearer and crowd favourite Dmitrii Loginov in the semi-final of the giant slalom parallel snowboard competition on his way to the gold medal. This feat will only raise Kwiatowski's stock in the sporting world. 

The Winter Universiade has benefited both Krasnoyarsk and the competing athletes, then, but only time will tell if both take the opportunity to capitalise on this month's event.