After years of talk, planning, delays and hype, the World Games are finally here, starting now.
“It’s amazing what can happen when people commit to a cause bigger than their own self-interest,” said World Games CEO Nick Sellers.
“It’s the equivalent of a Super Bowl,” said Secret Service Special Agent in Charge Patrick Davis, who is coordinating federal security for the event. “Expect a great experience once you arrive.”
More than 13,000 foreign visitors – including the athletes – from about 40 countries are converging on Birmingham this week, according to an FBI memo on the event, arriving at the Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport, filling up the host Sheraton and Westin hotels in Uptown and other accommodations around the city.
More than 350,000 tickets have been sold to customers from around the world to 34 different sport competitions taking place at about 20 venues over 11 days, from this weekend through July 17.
The World Games, an Olympic-style athletic competition that includes many sports not in the Summer Olympics, will feature participation from about 3,600 athletes, all competing for gold, silver and bronze medals. Not nearly as old as the Olympics, the World Games had its first competition in California in 1981 and is held the year after the Summer Olympics. Because of the pandemic, both the Olympics and the World Games were pushed back a year.
Although Birmingham is the host city, the competition will take place in 14 different venue clusters in the metro area, including Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, the Hoover Met, and Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds.
“This is the City of Birmingham’s show, but we’re playing a role as supporting actors,” said Hoover Mayor Frank Brocato. “We’re working very hard to make sure that Birmingham gets all the support they need.”
The opening ceremony was held Thursday night at Protective Stadium. The stadium will also host the closing ceremony on July 17.
“It’s going to be a special time in our city to see all these athletes coming in, in a global television broadcast through the Olympic Channel and CBS domestically,” Sellers said. “It’s going to be an emotional moment.”
American military hero Noah Galloway, an honorary co-chair, and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin carried in the American flag and the World Games flag into the opening ceremony. Grammy winner Yolanda Adams sang the national anthem.
Law enforcement agencies will be enforcing a security zone that that will be in effect through July 17. That will include security barriers and street closures in the area from Protective Life Stadium to Boutwell Auditorium.
The World Games was granted a level-one special event assessment rating by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the same level granted to the Super Bowl. That means it will be treated as a high-risk event with federal officers helping to secure the area.
“The security rating that we have with the Department of Homeland Security obviously comes with a lot of great benefits,” Sellers said. “This is going to be very safe coming in and out for families. But with those benefits there are some burdens. The burden is, for instance, around the BJCC and Protective and Uptown and Boutwell and World Games Plaza, you generally will not be able to park within four blocks of that.”
The World Games Plaza occupies the new City Walk, a 1.5 mile linear park that stretches from 15th Street North to 25th Street North under the Interstate 59/20 overpasses. There will be concerts on stages at the City Walk and a variety of activities at the hub through the games.
“We’re going to make it very family-friendly and fan-friendly,” Sellers said.
Among the storylines coming into the games, University of Alabama softball heroes Haylie McCleney and Montana Fouts will lead Team USA softball in competition at the Hoover Met.
“Hopefully Team USA can avenge their gold medal loss to Japan in the Tokyo Olympics,” Sellers said.
“In lacrosse, there’s the great story of the Iroquois Nation having an opportunity to compete for a sport that they created,” Sellers said. “It’s the first time lacrosse is on a big global scale like this. It will ultimately become a Summer Olympic sport. We think that’s going to be a huge storyline, at the PNC Field at UAB, where UAB soccer plays.”
Sumo wrestling has already sold out.
Sloss Furnaces will host some newer, hip events such as sport climbing.
“I really think the competitions at Sloss Furnaces are going to be huge and ultimately sell out,” Sellers said. We’re billing that area as the world’s biggest sports party. It’ll have some really fast-growing sports, from sport climbing, which will be a full Olympic Sport after this, to Parkour, these incredible acrobats that have a crazy obstacle course they’ll go through. It’s like American Gladiator. We’ll build a beach handball competition court at Sloss Furnaces. It’s like 21st Century volleyball. It’s really fun, very fast-paced, high-energy. Then, finally, break dancing, or Breakin’, as it’s known internationally, is going to be there. It will skew to a younger crowd there.”
There’s something for just about every sporting taste.
“These are the emerging sports,” Sellers said. “The beauty of the World Games is that there’s something for everybody. Water-ski jumping and wakeboarding and trick water-ski competition will be out at Oak Mountain. Those tickets are selling robustly as well.”
Brasfield & Gorrie and Hoar Program Management were lead partners on the construction of venues.
The challenge was to “make it look like an Olympic-level type of venue for these sport competitions, and then building it out and removing everything after the competition is over,” Sellers said.
It was a logistical jigsaw puzzle that had to be assembled.
“We’ve got a lot of great partners, from the Bruno Event Team, to the City of Birmingham, the City of Hoover and so many others that are helping us,” Sellers said. “Even the experts say, ‘We’ve never done anything like this before.’”
Community spirit has played a pivotal role in hosting the games.
“We’ve got over 3,000 volunteers who have signed up,” Sellers said. “It’s a Herculean effort to ensure that we’ve got, for 11 days, all of these venues across greater Birmingham area covered. We’ve not undertaken anything like this in the history of our city, where you’ve got all of these various venues with sport competitions going on, virtually at the same time.”
Of course, unforeseen problems could arise, but planning teams have done training with hypothetical scenarios.
“I think we have great preparation, so many people working hard on it,” Sellers said. “I’m really proud of how everybody in this community is working on this moment.”
Cooperating law enforcement agencies include the Secret Service, FBI, Homeland Security, and 15 local agencies that will assist the Birmingham Police Department. More than 90 state troopers will be deployed, along with uniformed officers from numerous municipalities.
“Our law enforcement agencies, from Hoover and Pelham, to Birmingham, the sheriff’s department, FBI, Secret Service, Homeland Security, they’re just working so well together,” Sellers said.
World Games organizers have been touting the motto, “Ride the Line” to promote using the system of shuttles set up for the games.
“The goal is to not have a wait time for more than 10 minutes for opening and closing ceremonies, and maybe just a little longer on competition days,” Sellers said.
The World Games hired a transportation consultant, Callaway Transportation, and chartered 55-passenger buses to augment MAX buses as part of the transportation plan.
“It’ll be first-class,” Sellers said. “You’ll get on them and there’ll be a video with the mayor, welcoming you to the city.”
The green line will be all around the city center, from Railroad Park area to Second Avenue restaurant district to Lakeview area and the PNC Lot, to Avondale Park, Sloss Furnaces and back to the hub, the World Games Plaza. “You can park anywhere around those restaurant and entertainment areas and the World Games green line will shuttle you every 10 minutes, to the hub, for all the action, for opening ceremonies and every night in the Regions World Games Plaza, in and around the competition venues of the BJCC, Boutwell,” Sellers said. “It’s going to be very convenient. We’ll have a blue line that is the west part of town from Legion Field to the hub and back. Again, very convenient. The red line will be the Magic City Connector. That will go up and down the spine of 20th Street.”
Ride shares, the Ubers and Lyfts, will have a drop-off point right at the hub as well at Regions World Games Plaza, just a block from the plaza itself.
“We need them to know you can drive your own car and come to opening and closing ceremonies, but you’re going to have to walk a good ways,” Sellers said. “In bigger cities, people are used to this stuff. If you go to a Super Bowl or National Championship, you just can’t park right up to the stadium. In Birmingham, it’s a new way of thinking. It’s a more dispersed parking system in and around the entertainment areas that will shuttle you right up to the action and shuttle you right back to your vehicles. I think it’s going to be a better way, a more efficient way, for our community.
The World Games web site has event, venue and ticket information, and visitors can download an app that shows the daily sports competitions and activities.
The closing ceremony will be a musical extravaganza highlighting the best of the state’s musical talent.
“It’s the legends of Alabama music performing,” Sellers said. “Three of our American Idols that have never performed on the same stage together: Taylor Hicks, Bo Bice and Ruben Studdard. Jamey Johnson and Blind Boys of Alabama singing a duet together. Martha Reeves will sing “Dancing in the Street,” which is incredible. The band Alabama performing some of their biggest hits and obviously the incomparable Lionel Richie coming home for the first time in over two decades to perform publicly. It’s generational.”
There is a flag passing from one country to the next at closing ceremonies, with China hosting the next games in four years.
“Ultimately, the American flag will be handed with the Chinese and the World Games flag to our partners in China as they take over for the next World Games in 2025,” Sellers said. “It’ll be a moment of high diplomacy. Put all the politics aside, put all the geopolitical challenges in our world aside, nothing brings humanity together better than sport competition and music. It’ll be an opportunity to send it off in a special way as we hand it off to China.”
Ukraine and Russia
The Ukrainian athletes joined the parade of athletes on Thursday night at the opening ceremony and got a standing ovation and loud applause. They were able to attend despite the war in their home country since the Feb. 24 invasion by Russia.
“We’re monitoring the situation very closely through the international World Games Association and International Olympic Committee,” Se
llers said before the games. “We’re hopeful for these Ukrainian athletes, there’s over 150, that have qualified to compete in the World Games. We continue to monitor the situation for them and pray for their safety, that they can compete.”
There are no athletes from Russia or Belarus at the World Games.
“We have followed suit of all the other international sport competitions under the Olympic movement and we have banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing in these games,” Sellers said. “We continue to monitor the situation closely. We took no joy in banning these athletes. They’re innocent. They’ve been competing for their moment just like everyone else. But so are the Ukrainian athletes, many of whom are right now defending their country and their families and their own lives. The only right thing to do was to ban the Russian and Belarusian athletes. If the situation were to change, we would obviously revisit. Right now, that ban is in place. We’re just praying for the safety of all these athletes.”
The World Games will be like nothing Alabama has ever seen, its organizers promise.
“We want our fans to have a great experience,” Sellers said. “It’s a new way of thinking about how to do big events in Birmingham.”
See also: World Games athletes on Birmingham: ‘It’s very hot’