Max Winters ©ITG

From July 20 Wrocław, a city of just over 600,000 people in the west of Poland, will become the centre of an alternative sporting world. The International World Games Association (IWGA) is bringing its flagship event to the 2016 European Capital of Culture.

The World Games will be staged over a period of 11 days and will feature sports and disciplines that are not on the Olympic programme. It is expected that around 4,000 athletes spanning 31 sports and more than 100 countries will compete.

The 2017 World Games were originally due to be held from August 3 to 13, but were moved to July 20 to 30 in order to avoid a clash with the 2017 International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships in London. The Games take place in the year following a Summer Olympics and, according to the IWGA website, "aspire to equal and exceed the importance of World Championships organised by each federation individually".

On July 20, the Opening Ceremony will be staged at the Municipal Stadium in Wrocław, which hosted three group stage matches at the 2012 European Football Championships. IWGA President José Perurena López said he was delighted with how preparations have gone.

"At this moment it is going very, very well," he told insidethegames. "This includes the television deal we have with the Olympic Channel. All the venues are ready and at the moment I am very happy with the situation before the World Games."

As well as featuring events that are not on the Olympic schedule, there is another significant difference between the World Games and the biggest multi-sport event on the planet. A philosophy instilled into the IWGA from its infancy bids to ease the pressure and burden on host cities as they prepare to stage the event. As some host cities of major events buckle under the financial and infrastructural demands, the IWGA aims to allow cities to focus simply on holding the best possible Games.

A World Games host city is never required to build facilities or extend available infrastructure for the sake of the Games alone. In an ideal world, the event is staged at existing venues and facilities that have been planned or are already built. One new venue is being constructed for Wrocław 2017, a new roller skating track, but that is being built under the city’s own steam.

The International World Games Association will host its flagship event this week ©Getty Images
The International World Games Association will host its flagship event this week ©Getty Images

As IWGA vice-president Max Bishop explains, not only does this provide a safety net for the host cities, it also widens the possibility of potential candidates for the Games.

"If a facility has been planned and financed before we award the Games then we obviously do not have any objections to that being used," said Bishop. "For example, in Wrocław there is a big new swimming venue that was already decided upon and funded. Wrocław is a big city with 600,000 people and there are new infrastructure projects underway all the time but there is nothing that has been specifically created for the World Games.

"There is a certain amount of refurbishment obviously, that happens all the time but that will be to the benefit of the city in years to come and not just to the Games. It makes it attractive to host because you do not have to build white elephants. 

"More importantly perhaps, it means that for the number of smaller cities that don’t have the financial resources of great big cities of millions of people, it makes it possible for them to host an event of this size. The philosophy widens the number of cities that can host the event.”"

Indeed it does. Take a look at recent hosts of the World Games and you will see proof. 

Cali in Colombia handed the Games over to Wrocław four years ago and before that the action was based in Kaohsiung in Chinese Taipei. Duisburg in Germany, The Hague in The Netherlands and Akita in Japan are further evidence that it is possible to stage a large sporting event without embroiling the city in financial turmoil, while building venues that sit deserted and abandoned for years after. 

While the city of Los Angeles in the United States, with a population of just under four million people, jostles to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games with Paris, the smaller American city of Birmingham in Alabama has already been confirmed as host of the 2021 World Games.

The importance of the World Games in the sporting landscape becomes increasingly apparent when you see the nature of their relationship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The two organisations agreed on a new Memorandum of Understanding in April 2016 to supersede a previous deal that was in place from 2000. 

It states that the IOC and the IWGA are to closely cooperate regarding the sports programme composition. It also confirms that the IOC recognises the importance of the World Games as a multi-sport event and the IWGA is "committed to develop its activities in the Olympic spirit and in conformity with the Olympic Charter".

IOC President Thomas Bach will attend this year's World Games Opening Ceremony.

"This Memorandum of Understanding tremendously enhances the status of the World Games," said Perurena López.

Close ties have been forged with the International Olympic Committee and Thomas Bach ©IWGA
Close ties have been forged with the International Olympic Committee and Thomas Bach ©IWGA

"Working in cooperation with the IOC is essential for us to raise the level of competition and organisation of our Games. I want to thank IOC President Thomas Bach for his enormous support and for working with us on this document. It proves that we are a real part of the Olympic Movement and a member of the Olympic family."

Bach's appearance at the World Games Opening Ceremony will not be a first for the German.

He was also present at Cali 2013, when he was IOC vice-president under Belgian Jacques Rogge.

IOC sports director Kit McConnell has summed up the relationship between the IOC and IWGA.

"As we look for more flexibility in the programme of the Olympic Games in the future, certainly The World Games is one of the areas we are looking to observe, see the sports, see them performed at a very high level and with the best athletes in those sports," he said.

"Obviously we are looking for sports that bring a real value to the programme." 

So where do those at the top of the IWGA believe the World Games fits into the sporting landscape? 

"I think the World Games is at the same level as the Continental Games," said Perurena López. "I think it is in a strong position and that's why the IOC has an agreement with us. I think it is similar to the Continental Games, such as the Pan American or Asian, we are all at a similar level, which is second in multi-sport Games to the Olympics."

Another viewpoint is that the World Games are a vital tool in the development of the Olympic Games and the sports which it welcomes. 

Previous World Games "alumni" sports which have gone on to make the Olympics include rugby sevens, karate and sport climbing. The latter two are set to appear on the programme at Tokyo 2020 for the first time while rugby sevens made a successful debut at Rio 2016.

"We see the World Games as a stepping stone to enable our federations to have at least some hope at some stage of getting onto the Olympic programme," added Bishop.

"It has happened to a number of sports but for me, more importantly than that, it is a successful event in its own right.

"It allows people in sports which don’t receive a great deal of media coverage, and therefore don’t have a lot of money to have a showcase event, to project to their fans that their sport is in a bigger event where they can rub shoulders with other sports and compare themselves to some extent with others.

"I think that is very important when they see what other non-Olympic sports have managed to do in terms of making their sport popular, projecting it via the media and so on. There is a certain amount of learning that goes on between the different sporting federations."

Sports which are not on the Olympic progamme receive a showcase at the World Games
Sports which are not on the Olympic progamme receive a showcase at the World Games

Of the 31 sports set to appear in Wrocław, 26 make up the core programme while four are invitational events: American football, indoor rowing, kickboxing and speedway. Invited sports, whose world federations are not members of the Games' governing body, will not be included in the final medal classification.

A landmark television deal has also been signed for this year’s Games which will see the sporting action beamed across the globe. The IWGA has joined forces with International Sports Broadcasting (ISB), who will work alongside Polish host broadcasters ATM System to showcase live coverage. 

Under the terms of the partnership, ISB will work side-by-side with ATM to cover events live from venues during the Games. They will also create a "24/7" permanent channel for the Games together with the Olympic Channel, another perk of the partnership with the IOC.

Founded in 1996 by Romero, ISB has served as host broadcaster for many of the world’'s leading sporting events, including seven Olympic and six Paralympic Games, as well as the inaugural 2015 European Games in Baku. The deal is seen as a huge plus for organisers and, as Bishop says, most sporting action on our television screens does not feature the sports that are on the World Games programme.

"It is extremely important because the more media exposure we get, the more people have an opportunity to see minority sports which they don't get to see because everything is crowded out by mainstream sports, such as football," he said.

As for the future of the World Games, Bishop appears to be content with its position in the sporting calendar and hopes that while the wider sporting community continues to be bogged down by scandal, the IWGA can remain immune and continue to grow for the benefit of its member organisations.

"My principle hope is that we are able to maintain the existing situation which is that we have not been sullied by any major anti-doping issues in comparison to what is happening elsewhere and we haven’'t had any corruption scandals," he said.

"I think there is a place in the sporting calendar for an event where people go to have fun but, of course, they are all very serious athletes who all want to do better than everybody else and win medals.

"There is also a different atmosphere at the World Games which is of friendship and mutual support and I want to maintain that. 

"I think that quite clearly if we can get all our member sports increased exposure because of their participation in our Games then we will have served them and their interests well."