Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

With all votes cast, the successful bidder for 2020 Gymnasiade - jewel in the crown of the rapidly expanding International School Sport Federation (ISF) - had yet be announced.  

But from my position at the back of the conference hall in which I had witnessed Taoyuan in Chinese Taipei, Jinjiang in China, and the Hungarian capital of Budapest make their final presentations I was able to observe the body language of all three delegations as the announcement was awaited.

The Chinese, at least five times more numerous than either - maybe even both - of their rivals, were on their feet, cheerfully and industriously engaged in mass self-photography.

Let’s put it this way. They didn’t look like the losing team.  

And lo, it came to pass that the Chinese bid carried the day without even needing to go to a second round of voting, meaning it had an immediate clear majority of the 20 available ISF Executive Committee votes.

Chinese delegates in Sardinia hail Jinjiang's overwhelming victory against bids from Chinese Taipei and Hungary in the vote to host the International School Sport Federation's 2020 Gymnasiade ©ITG
Chinese delegates in Sardinia hail Jinjiang's overwhelming victory against bids from Chinese Taipei and Hungary in the vote to host the International School Sport Federation's 2020 Gymnasiade ©ITG

Jinjiang - provider, according to its Mayor Liu Wenur, of two out of every 10 pairs of sports shoes sold around the world - was off and running…

The messages from ISF in the hosting Sardinian resort of Olnia before what was the first "Olympic-style" bidding process for this multi-sport event first staged in 1974 were mixed.

School sport is not Olympic sport, and does not want to be. The costs involved are also in different leagues.

But the ISF, supercharged since 2014 by a highly effective and ambitious President in Laurent Petrynka, has set itself a challenging target for expansion and improvement embodied in a document that invites parallels with the International Olympic Committee’s Agenda 2020 - namely, Vision 2030.

Petrynka, a former physical education teacher and semi-professional footballer, was voted in as ISF President in 2014, four years after becoming National Director of School Sport in France at the Union Nationale du Sport Scolaire.

Earlier this year he met with the IOC President Thomas Bach, who has embraced the template Petrynka has set up in France which helps enables schoolchildren to continue with their sporting activities later in life and wants it to help bridge the same gap globally.

So there are some big imperatives and aspirations in play now within the ISF.

The same, of course, is true of China, which -whether by coincidence or not - joined the bidding for the 2020 Gymnasiade shortly after Chinese Taipei, the offshore island which it refuses to recognise as an independent state - had announced their interest in hosting the event and had invited the ISF evaluation team (another new Olympic echo) over during its recent staging of the Universiade.

During the post-vote press conference, the ISF secretary general, Jan Coolen, broke with general tradition by making a short but telling point about the level of the Chinese bid: "The best dossier has won; that says it all. The overall level of the dossier will decide which city will win - and it’s obvious."

From the overall concept of their bid, carefully tailored to parallel the new ISF aims, down to the tiniest detail, the Chinese were intent on making victory inevitable.

One anecdote - for the first gathering, effectively the pre-meeting before the sequence of presentation rehearsals began in the Olbia venue of the Geovillage Resort, the Chinese arrived with a large group of eager and anxious technicians, all suited and booted. Doubtless they had all been inspired by Roy Keane’s favourite mantra - fail to prepare; prepare to fail.

If the Chinese appeared confidence in the minutes before the vote was announced, they had good reason. Their model dossier had been followed up by a carefully calibrated presentation that pressed all the required buttons.

China’s Vice-Minister of Education, Tian Xuejin commented: "Eighty five milliion middle school students in China are now keenly expecting  the return of the Gymnasiade to China after 22 years."

Asked by insidethegames what he felt had sealed China’s victory, the Jinjiang Mayor re-iterated some of the key points made during the presentation:

  • Full support from the Chinese government - plus  according to official figures, 99 per cent of local people, and 99 per cent of local students.
  • A hosting city long-versed in sporting goods manufacture with a GDP of €24 billion, with an economy that has grown by 8.5 per cent in the first half of this year.
  • A commitment to create two new buildings - at a cost of €350 million – that would bear the ISF name and provide permanent venues for future school sports and cultural activities.
  • Further refurbishment of facilities throughout the city, which would leave more than 60 per cent of the venues within schools and available for future use.

Liu added: "After a win of this kind we will have an even more open attitude to the whole world."

All in all, a pretty irresistible bid. And there was more, with mention being made of the "Healthy China" initiative, central to the Chinese Government’s agenda for health and development, that was launched last year by President Xi Jinping.

ISF President Laurent Petrynka addresses a question at the post-vote press conference in Olbia ©ISF
ISF President Laurent Petrynka addresses a question at the post-vote press conference in Olbia ©ISF

No wonder then that Petrynka seized up the Chinese slogan - "Better US Better Future" - as chiming in perfectly with the ISF aspirations.

Better Future? When I put it to the IFS President that Jinjiang might be a hard act to follow - in the same way as Beijing 2008, with its mighty, and mega-expensive Birds Nest centrepiece - he responded after only a couple of moment’s thought.

"The Gymnasiade has been improving since the first one at Wiesbaden in 1974," he said. "I’m really not afraid to say that 2022 will also be a very good Gymnasiade for many reasons.

"Firstly, it will be inspired by the success of Jinjiang 2020.

"Secondly, to be very clear, the Gymnasiade will now be at the highest level. We have the strong message from the International Olympic Committee that world schools championships are compulsory. 

"Why? They must be organised in the best way, and we need to invest in them.

"The main values of ISF are based on belief that sport is a prevailing tool for the promotion of mutual understanding, peace and tolerance and can greatly contribute to the physical, social and intellectual development of youngsters.

"If you consider only the professional side you miss the goal.  We are working very hard to find the best cities in the world who have understood this message."

It was all delivered with a missionary glint in the eye...