Fighters flock to Russia as the offer of a free lunch proves irresistable
There is reputedly no such thing as a free lunch and athletes playing minority sports where full-time professionals are a rarity know that all too well.
Getting to overseas tournaments to compete can be expensive – and that’s what makes the World Combat Games an increasingly popular competition.
After the inaugural event in Beijing in 2010, St Petersburg in Russia will stage the second edition of the games, which start on Friday, and there will be a free lunch for cash-strapped competitors – plus much more.
“Concerning the World Combat Games, all the participating teams are invited [to bring] five athletes and one coach,” says Nicolas Messner, the communications director at the International Judo Federation. “Extra people are at the [expense] of the federations [but] flight tickets and full board accommodation is paid by the organising committee.”
In judo, there will be eight teams of five fighters in both the male and female competitions. In total, the joint organisers the Russian Martial Arts Union (Ruma) and the Sport Accord association expect about 1,300 athletes to compete for 135 medals in 15 disciplines in St Petersburg.
There will also be kendo in St Petersburg in a three-day competition featuring a swath of athletes from as far apart as Australia, Brazil, Belgium and Japan.
For Andrew Fisher, the only Briton to have qualified for the kendo competition, the games represents a chance to compete internationally at minimal personal cost.
“When I was resident in the UK, I would spend approximately £10,000 (Dh58,597) a year of my own money on kendo-related expenses,” says Fisher.
In Britain, kendo athletes have to pay to get to monthly training camps and also practice tournaments overseas.
Fisher left home to pursue his dream in a country where the sport has a far higher profile and now lives in Kumamoto, Japan, where he works as an international sales director for the kit supplier All Japan Budogu.
“In the end, I moved to Japan to become a better athlete, as I am now in an environment where I can train at a world-class level, every day. But the guys back home, they still have to bear the full front of these costs,” he says.
“For other international events, the British Kendo Association provides some funding for athletes, such as flights accommodation and food, during the event. However, as I am based in Japan, I personally have to find funding for my travel, which my company provides for me. Having said that, although the events themselves are covered largely by the association, many other expenses are not, which puts us some way behind other European countries.”
With expenses relatively low, the reduction in overheads allied to the chance to compete in a high-profile multi-sport event makes the World Combat Games increasingly popular.
However, how much the games are going to cost to stage is shrouded in mystery.
Sport Accord declined to comment to The National on the cost of staging the World Combat Games.
Ruma also failed to respond. But there is no doubt there has been significant investment. Apart from the cost of flying in the athletes and officials, a new 7,000-capacity Spartak Arena has been built on Krestovskiy Island.
The arena, which opened on September 12, will provide a new home for the Russian professional basketball side Spartak St Petersburg and host many events.
However, despite the offer of a free lunch not all countries have taken up the a chance to visit Russia and compete in the World Combat Games.
In some cases, that is down to fixture clashes, which are inevitable in an increasingly crowded sports calendar.
The 2013 World Amateur Boxing Championships is being staged at Almaty in northern Kazakhstan and this has left some countries facing a difficult choice.
Cuba is home to some of the world’s most famous amateur boxers but the Caribbean island will only send three competitors – Jose Angel Larduet, Marcos Forestal and Ivan Oñate – to St Petersburg. Instead, the best Cubans will box in Almaty.
Another problem for athletes chasing a place at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is that, as a team event, the World Combat Games matches in St Petersburg do not offer ranking points that could boost qualification for the world’s most popular multi-sport event.
“The Combat Games will be a team event for judo, so there is no connection with the Olympic qualification process,” Mr Messner said.
As a result, competitions such as the World Taekwondo Federation’s World Grand Prix matter more to many potential Olympians.
But that will not deter the more than 1,000 athletes in the quest for medals in St Petersburg in what looks like a new fixture in the sporting calendar.