Mike Rowbottom @ITG

Next year, in the space of just over four months, the International University Sports Federation (FISU) will stage not one but two multi-sport events second only to the Olympics in terms of scale and complexity.

Since 1994 the International Olympic Committee has expediently staggered its Winter and Summer Games so that they are two years apart. Not so their junior partners. Which means that the FISU organisation, with Russia’s Oleg Matytsin at its head, is approaching its biennial period of intense international activity.

Between March 2 and 12, the 29th Winter Universiade will take place in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. And then Naples will host the 30th Summer Universiade between July 3 and 14 - the latest incarnation of an event that began 59 years ago in Turin after the staging of precursor events bearing various titles which had started in 1923.

Meanwhile, the wheels are already turning in preparation for the 2021 versions of these youthful, universal gatherings, which will be held in Lucerne and Chengdu respectively. 

At the 2015 FISU General Assembly where Matytsin become President after beating the French incumbent Claude-Louis Gallien by 102 votes to 23, the IOC President Thomas Bach made a speech in which he said: "FISU and the IOC are saving the values of sport, maybe more important now than ever.

"We all have to learn our lessons and draw conclusions in this changing world.

"We have to change at the time of success, to change for not being changed.

"New questions need new answers.

"Please continue in this respect of being a good partner of the IOC.

"If we can help with our experience, we are happy to do so.

"Our doors are always open to you."

Oleg Matytsin, elected as FISU President in 2015, has had to negotiate some testing issues in the organisation of next year's Winter and Summer Universiades in Krasnoyarsk and Naples respectively ©FISU
Oleg Matytsin, elected as FISU President in 2015, has had to negotiate some testing issues in the organisation of next year's Winter and Summer Universiades in Krasnoyarsk and Naples respectively ©FISU

The changing world has not changed in that respect since 2015. And as Matytsin explained to insidethegames last year, cooperation between his organisation and Bach’s is hugely significant - for both entities.

"Together, the IOC and FISU have the two biggest multisport events in the world," said the man who was, from 2009 to 2013, deputy chairman of the Organising Committee for the Kazan 2013 Universiade, which  broke records in terms of number of participants - almost 12,000 - sports – 27 - and medal events - 351.

"The lessons that we can share about managing complexity and minimising risk are very important. But the implications of our close work with the IOC go further than that.

"Without any doubt the IOC is a leader and a benchmark for all sports federations. The IOC’s Agenda 2020 provides us with guidelines and directions to move forward. Olympic values are what we try to teach our student athletes, as they are a vital part of our core mission.

"We also look at the IOC’s experience of bidding campaigns, as finding host cities can be a challenge for federations, given the current economic situation. Rotational principle of a sports programme and inclusion of new sports in the programme are also a case to study for us. We believe that our Universiades are a perfect testing ground for prospective Olympic sports, as we have seen with roller sports, snowboarding and freestyle.”

FISU has also been hugely influential in testing 3x3 basketball, which is due to make its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.

"Basketball is now the number one urban team sport in the world and FISU is integral to its growth," Matytsin added. "The most important thing for us is that we include relevant sports that students will engage with. Because of our success in basketball, other sports and cities are looking to partner with us because they recognise the reach of university sport."

Reviewing the position this week, he told insidethegames: "Recognising the need to stay relevant for both university student-athletes and the special intrigue that specific sports hold, FISU allows the host cities of the Summer and Winter Universiade the flexibility to add disciplines to the core medal events.

"This March, the Krasnoyarsk 2019 Winter Universiade will see freestyle skiing, ski orienteering and bandy added to the original programme of eight core snow and ice sports.

"In July, rugby sevens, shooting sport and sailing come onto the Summer Universiade programme’s 30th edition, bringing the total number of sports contested in Napoli to 18."

Next year's Winter Universiade will be held in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk - which has meant a problem over the particiipation of Ukrainian athletes due to the country's difficult relationship with Russia ©FISU
Next year's Winter Universiade will be held in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk - which has meant a problem over the particiipation of Ukrainian athletes due to the country's difficult relationship with Russia ©FISU

The build-up to next year’s summer Universiade has been vexed. Naples had only limited time to prepare as they took over hosting rights from Brasília, which withdrew as the Universiade venue in January 2015 because it was unable to meet financial commitments.

Earlier this year the question of where athletes would be housed became an increasingly urgent problem.

Initial plans were to house athletes across four cruiseships. However, Naples 2019 Extraordinary Commissioner Luisa Latella then revealed that the Italian National Anti-Corruption Authority had informed them not to not enter relations with MSC - the company it had contacted to host the athletes on ships.

FISU's favoured alternative was for the Mostra d'Oltremare site in the west of the city.

An Italian proposal to use a combination of cruiseships, hotels and mobile homes - some of which are yet to be determined - was also suggested as a possibility.

Amid concerns that a third hosting city might need to be found a deadline was set for Naples – Friday July 13.  On that day Matytsin and the FISU  secretary general, Eric Saintrond, met local and national figures in Italy including Giancarlo Giorgetti, the undersecretary responsible for sport and who is a close ally of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Saintrond then confirmed that the most recent Italian solution had been agreed upon at the meeting.

So how does Matytsin  view the Napoli 2019 scenario now?

"When timelines are as tight as they have been and continue to be in Napoli, there is a need for extra support and extra vigilance over deadlines," he responded. "Everyone involved is under pressure to deliver an amazing event - and to do so more quickly than they might otherwise have had to.

"But so far, the work has been carried out in a productive spirit and we are able to reassure the athletes that their efforts to qualify for the Universiade will be met with an event worthy of their grit, talent and tenacity.

"At this point, there is no question of alternative arrangements and we are making the best of each and every day to ensure that preparations are to the highest standard.

"I am quite confident that combining two cruise ships in an iconic downtown setting with hotel clusters will make for a memorable Universiade-time experience for athletes and officials alike.

"A couple of weeks ago, we had our final pre-Heads of Delegation meeting in Napoli where the university sports leaders all noted the high level of hospitality offered across all the athlete village accommodations."

Napoli will host the 2019 Summer Universiade - but only after coming through a key Friday 13 deadline over the accommodation of student athletes and where they should stay ©FISU
Napoli will host the 2019 Summer Universiade - but only after coming through a key Friday 13 deadline over the accommodation of student athletes and where they should stay ©FISU

So will any of the athletes be housed at  FISU's favoured alternative was for the Mostra d'Oltremare site in the west of the city?

"The Mostra d’Oltremare is an amazing place, one of the largest expo halls in Italy that mixes modern pavilions with buildings of considerable historical and architectural interest, and will play a central part to the upcoming Summer Universiade," Matytsin replied.

"While the Mostra will not be used for athlete accommodation, the venue is currently the home of event organising committee. During the Summer Universiade, the Mostra’s role will only grow as it will also house the Main Press Centre and several sports venues, including diving and judo.

"The San Paolo Stadium, home of the Italian Serie A football club SSC Napoli and the venue for both the opening ceremony and athletics, is adjacent to this expansive property. The swimming venue and one of the main basketball competition courts are also beside the Mostra, making this a vital hub for sport, media and event operations."

At the IOC Congress in October Matytsin discussed the forthcoming Summer Olympiade with IOC members, including Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) President Giovanni Malago – who, having presided over the collapsed Rome bid for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympics, is now backing a joint bid for the 2026 Winter Games from Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

How useful did he find that process?

"FISU is grateful to President Malago for CONI’s continued support with regard to Napoli 2019," Matytsin replied. "We know he is very much aware of the importance of demonstrating Italy’s ability to deliver major multi-sport competitions in order to successfully realise other ambitions for bidding and hosting.

"CONI has been a steadfast partner of international university sport, as Napoli 2019 will mark the 10th time that Italy will have hosted an edition of the summer or winter Universiade."

Before his election as FISU President, Matytsin played a key part in Krasnoyarsk’s nomination as a candidate for the 2019 Winter Universiade and was deputy chairman of the Krasnoyarsk 2019 Organising Committee when it was chosen by FISU on November 9 in 2013.

The IOC session in October offered Oleg Matytsin an opportunity to discuss with Ukraine's members Sergey Bubka, pictured, and Valeriy Borzov the question of whether their athletes could participate at Krasnoyarsk 2019 ©Getty Images
The IOC session in October offered Oleg Matytsin an opportunity to discuss with Ukraine's members Sergey Bubka, pictured, and Valeriy Borzov the question of whether their athletes could participate at Krasnoyarsk 2019 ©Getty Images

But this Universiade too has faced pressing problems.

October’s IOC session also offered Matytsin the opportunity to discuss with Ukraine's IOC members Valeriy Borzov and Sergey Bubka the question of whether their country would be able to participate at Krasnoyarsk 2019.

Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 has led to skirmishing and diplomatic tensions between the two nations.

In March this year, Ukraine's Government banned the country's athletes from competing at any events in Russia.

Kiev then scaled back this policy, instead recommending athletes do not compete in Russia and warning them, that if they decide to do so, then their trip will not be funded.

So how fruitful was the meeting with Borzov and Bubka? And how confident is Matytsin - who earlier this year received the Order of Honour of the Russian Federation from President Putin at the Kremlin - that Ukraine athletes will be in Krasnoyarsk in March?

"It’s always useful to talk to those with close knowledge of any difficult situation and the question of Ukrainian participation in Krasnoyarsk is no different in this respect," Matytsin said.

"The Ukrainian Ministry of Sport has declined to fund the Ukrainian team and opposed its participation; FISU has offered to fund the team and is awaiting a response from the Ukrainian National University Sports Federation.

"FISU regrets the position taken by the Ukrainian Government.

"It is simply not appropriate to make athletes suffer because of a political issue, especially when international sports events can do so much to promote peace and mutual understanding."

Beyond the concerns over next year’s Olympiades, Matytsin has in view some over-arching ambitions regarding the ongoing sporting cooperation between North and South Korea.

The topic, according to FISU, was "high on the agenda" when Matytsin met Bach at the Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly in Tokyo last month.

The topic of sporting unity between North and South Korea was
The topic of sporting unity between North and South Korea was "high on the agenda" at November's meeting between FISU President Oleg Matytskin and IOC President Thomas Bach ©FISU

"The Olympic Movement has a great understanding of FISU’s ability to demonstrate the viability of new places for the hosting of major multi-sport events," Matytsin said.

"The best example of this is the Beijing 2001 Summer Universiade, which proved the excellent hosting ability of our Chinese friends to the IOC, just before it met to vote on the host city for the 2008 Olympic Games.

"Should the opportunity arise, FISU would be honoured to play a similar role with North and South Korea.

"We were encouraged during our meetings with the Presidents of both the Korean NOCs in Tokyo.

"The university sports movement already has a very strong recent affinity for the Korean peninsula thanks to the remarkable success of the Gwangju 2015 Summer Universiade.

"That said, we have no illusions about the complexity and sensitivity presented by any ambition towards joint hosting of events.

 But certainly there is a willingness on the part of FISU to contribute to helping further what was achieved in Pyeongchang earlier this year; it remains to be seen what form that will take.”

Last year, as he looked ahead to the implementation of the FISU Global Strategy 2027, Matytsin said: "We aim to find more ways of reaching out to the global student community, through direct university participation in sport, educational opportunities and other engagement initiatives.

"Key challenges remain with global uncertainty, and the things that can distract young people from embracing sport."

So how is the Global Strategy working - and is esports one of the things that can distract young people from embracing sport?

"The FISU Global Strategy 2027 remains the guiding document for the university sports movement and I am pleased that we have already been able to put much of it into practice," Matytsin replied.

"Any parent or teacher can speak at length about the distractions young people face. The sheer amount of media consumption and interaction is the biggest issue. As we know, young people have only so much unstructured time away from their schoolwork.

"There was a time when sport was an obvious choice for this time, but now we face strong competition and must rise to this challenge.

"Recognising that young people have new patterns for spending their time is important and we have to embrace the informal sporting practices that many of them are drawn to. 3x3 basketball is one, in particular, where we have seen success in this area.

"In terms of global uncertainty, there have been ten years of austerity in many key markets for sport and the International Monetary Fund is now warning of another possible global financial crisis.

"So like any other sports organisation, we must work harder than ever to ensure that the hosting of our events is understood to be an attractive proposition."

And esports? The response is deeply diplomatic…

"The popularity of esports on campus is no secret, and we even see some American universities offering sporting scholarships to players. For now, we do not feel we have reached the point where a wider formal sporting status is appropriate for eSports. But this is certainly something that we continue to look at closely, alongside the rest of the Olympic Movement.”

A deal has been agreed between FISU and Chengdu in China to host the 2021 Summer Universiade @FISU
A deal has been agreed between FISU and Chengdu in China to host the 2021 Summer Universiade @FISU

 Asked to review FISU’s activity over the past year, Matytsin responded: 

"The world of international university sport has been a very busy and productive one since we last talked.

"In addition to running 32 successful World University Championships this year and two more editions of the 3x3 basketball league finals in the fall of 2017 and 2018, FISU has set itself up well on the Universiade host city front.

"FISU will return to North American soil for the Winter Universiade 2023 in Lake Placid, USA. This is the first time the continent has hosted a Universiade since the city of Buffalo, New York put on the Summer Universiade 1993.

"Lake Placid and the whole Adirondack region, actually, has a longstanding and rich sporting history that includes hosting the Winter Universiade 1972 in addition to the Winter Olympic Games in 1932 and 1980.

"From the outset, Lake Placid’s bid to bring the FISU Flame back to this corner of the globe was one of the strongest we have ever seen.

"Just this week we also marked an important moment in university sports as the FISU Steering Committee took a key step towards hosting the Summer Universiade 2021. During these meetings, FISU and Chengdu, China signed a pre-attribution host city agreement for the 31st Summer Universiade edition.

"It’s fitting that this event should return to China in 2021 as it was the Beijing 2001 Summer Universiade that marked the first time this country hosted a major international multi-sports event. We are fortunate to be heading back.

Asked what position he hoped FISU would be in in five years’ time, Matytsin concluded:

"At FISU, we are squarely focused on expanding the global role and reach of university sport. With 2019 being the federation’s 70th anniversary, this is a pivotal time for FISU to ensure that sport’s values - from honesty and fair play to integrity and humility - to sports practice itself are increasingly present on university campus grounds around the world.

"FISU is synonymous with organising world-class sports events for student-athletes, but we are always looking to build on our strengths. We do this through strong collaborative efforts with our host cities and building even greater bonds within the Olympic Movement.

"With 70 years leading university sport worldwide and the 60th anniversary of the Universiade coming up in Napoli this July, FISU has experience to draw upon to be the central gateway to sport for the more than 180 million university students.

"To do so will take a wider understanding of sport and healthy lifestyle on campus, which we’re working on already. While we are undoubtedly proud of the first 70 years of FISU, we are just getting started."