Kazan Arena has been showing off its international credentials at the on-going Confederations Cup this month, culminating in tomorrow’s semi-final between Portugal and Chile. But the 45,000-seater stadium isn’t just limited to football – two summers ago it was underwater as the showpiece venue for the FINA World Aquatic Sports Championship.
Staging the swimming and synchronised swimming events, the venue was out of bounds for Rubin Kazan for most of the year – the team returned to its Central Stadium home, or played out at the reserves’ Rubin Stadium as necessary. Two Olympic-sized swimming pools were installed on the pitch, one warm-up pool, one for the events. Temporary stands was installed between them, while one of the regular stands was also pressed into service as a media hub and VIP area.
The result was surprisingly effective. The athletes, mostly, were enthusiastic about competing in such a vast and unusual venue. Crowds turned up in good numbers. Aside from a few minor quibbles about cold air on the walk from the dressing rooms to the water, everyone was happy. For Kazan, a city bidding hard for the title of Russia’s sporting capital, the championships were another showcase for the ambitions of government of the Republic of Tatarstan.
Those ambitions occasionally prompted unease: a decision to ditch dynamic action pictures of Russia’s golden synchro girls in favour of a dull ‘men-in-suits’ shot of the republic’s president, Rustam Minnikhanov, handing over their medals, rather disfigured the competition’s daily newspaper (published by the local-government run media agency, TatInform, of course). The whole event took on a powerfully promotional tone, allied to an ambitious proposal to bid for a Kazan Olympics.
But doubts couldn’t counteract the enthusiasm with which Kazan hosted the event. Much like the Sochi Winter Olympics, there was a welcoming cohort of volunteers with a clear brief to ensure that everyone went away with a positive impression of city and country. The city itself, an intriguing mix of Orthodox, Islamic and Soviet, was spruced up to offer its best face to the visiting world. And the sport, one year out from the Rio Olympics, was compelling. Elsewhere on the blog there’s a tale of North Korean political fervour at the diving events, but the swimming and synchro events were undoubtedly the big draws.
Both proved a better spectacle in person than on TV. Synchronised swimming still isn’t entirely convincing as a sport: a comment from a Ukrainian entrant along the lines of ‘sometimes it all comes down to the colour of your costume’ didn’t do much to persuade anyone that the judging is all that objective. Nonetheless, the sheer spectacle and athleticism of the performances were absorbing. It’s not often you get to see people standing on their heads under water, after all.
The swimming provided a heady mix of controversy and heroism. Much of the former surrounded Russia’s star swimmer, Yuliya Yefimova, back in action after a 16-month drug suspension. She won gold in the 100m breaststroke, but her international media availability was limited to a carefully stage-managed press conference that sought to protect her from questions about her drugs record. China’s Sun Yang, another swimmer returning after a drug ban, was also the focus of criticism after gold medals in the 400 and 800 free and pulled out of the 1500m on the day of the race citing illness.
Heroism came elsewhere. The individual star of the competition was American distance swimmer Katie Ledecky. She demolished the opposition to land four golds in the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 free events, claiming one championship and two world records along the way. But there was also an encouraging sight for the growth of swimming as Gabon became the latest nation to make its World Championship debut. The Africans didn’t make much of a splash in their races, but brought an engaging human interest angle as Mael Ambonguilat became his country’s first ever representative at this level just two years after Gabon established a swimming federation.