Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

On March 20 this year, organisers of the Chengdu 2021 International University Sports Federation (FISU) World University Games unveiled the design of medals for the event at a ceremony marking 100 days until it was scheduled to get underway.

In a nod to the emblem of the Chengdu 2021 FISU Games, the medals featured a golden sun bird seen getting ready for flight. It was certainly an apt image for an event that has struggled to get off the ground.

The third planned edition of these Games to be hosted by China was originally scheduled from August 16 to 27 2021. But on April 21 last year it was announced that the Games would be postponed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with scheduling to be announced at a later date but with the Games retaining its branding of Chengdu 2021.

In May 2021, FISU confirmed that the event had been rescheduled for June 2022.

On May 6 this year, however - after New Zealand, Canada and Britain had declared that they would not compete in Chengdu in 2022 due to COVID-19 uncertainty - FISU announced that the Games had been rescheduled again for 2023, and on Friday (June 24) the new dates were set - July 28 to August 8.

The event's slogan is "Chengdu Makes Dreams Come True". Through bad luck and circumstance, that is turning out to be an unexpectedly lengthy process.

Chengdu was the sole candidate to host the 2021 Summer World University Games, and its officials received the FISU flag from the Italian city of Naples at the Closing Ceremony of the 2019 edition.

Then-FISU President Oleg Matytsin - who was obliged to vacate the role until December 2022 following the World Anti-Doping Agency's sanctions on the Russian Anti-Doping Agency - said a delegation from his organisation had been "amazed by the quality of the presentation" when visiting Chengdu.

"We have no doubt that Chengdu 2021 will prove to be an exceptional Universiade that will make a lasting and very positive impression both on the participants and the city itself," he added.

A new 40,000-capacity Dong’an Lake Sports Park Stadium, planned location of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, was one of the main venues viewed on the evaluation visit.

The delegation also visited the campus of Chengdu University, which will house the Universiade Village as well as the volleyball competition venue.

Chengdu will be the third Summer World University Games hosted in China in little more than two decades, after Beijing in 2001 and Shenzhen in 2011.

The capital of Sichuan province in central China, Chengdu is known as the home of the giant panda due to a breeding centre in the city and a nearby nature reserve.

Organisers claimed the city boasted a special transportation system with environmentally-friendly vehicles which will allow 24-hour travel for athletes and delegation officials.

The confirmation of Chengdu's hosting was welcomed by FISU, which had been forced to reopen the bidding process for the 2019 event back in 2014, following the withdrawal of the Brazilian city Brasília as host.

The programme is set to feature the 15 compulsory sports. Archery, aquatics, athletics, basketball, fencing, football, gymnastics and judo are among the compulsory sports.

Table tennis, taekwondo, tennis, volleyball and water polo are also included, while badminton will be a compulsory sport for the first time at Chengdu 2021.

A further three optional sports will be included, with Chengdu having selected rowing, shooting and wushu.

The move to 2023 was effectively enabled by the decision taken to suspend Yekaterinburg’s right to stage that year's edition of the World University Games in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And at the end of this convoluted passage of improvisation for FISU, confirmation of the new dates for Chengdu’s hosting came at an Executive Committee meeting that took place, ironically, in Brasília.

First up for FISU as it strives to get back to normal running will be the Lake Placid 2023 Winter University Games, now due to take place following the gap that occurred last year when Lucerne had to cancel the 2021 Winter Universiade due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chengdu has been frustrated in hosting the Summer Games so often that you wonder how confident FISU is that it will finally be able to go ahead there in 2023?

In response Eric Saintrond, the FISU chief executive and secretary general, told insidethegames: "The pandemic has taught us all a valuable lesson about uncertainty. But FISU remains certain of the professional people, the facilities and the will that exists in Chengdu to host a great FISU World University Games.

"We are looking forward to being there as China resumes its place as a welcoming and capable host for international sports competitions."

Asked if he thought there would be any advantages for Chengdu waiting so long in terms of giving time to get every detail organised, Saintrond added: "For Chengdu, it was not so much a matter of time but of capacity.

"They have always had the capacity to deliver the project well and FISU will continue to support them in this delivery.

"National University Sports Federations can look forward to a very special event and I know that at FISU we are very much looking forward to first Lake Placid and then Chengdu next year."

FISU chief executive and secretary general Eric Saintrond, right, is confident organisers of the twice-postponed Chengdu Summer World University Games will deliver
FISU chief executive and secretary general Eric Saintrond, right, is confident organisers of the twice-postponed Chengdu Summer World University Games will deliver

Since 2019 the combination of a pandemic, the loss of President Matytsin, who is now the Russian Sports Minister, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have created a uniquely testing period for FISU.

How has Saintrond managed to cope with all these challenges - and which have been the toughest to negotiate?

"The hardest challenges for FISU to navigate are the ones where the athletes are most directly affected," Saintrond said. "We exist to provide them opportunities, and to not be able to do so is very frustrating.

"The last two-and-half years have been remarkably challenging, but of course we are not alone in this and we must always remember what is important.

"So many families, including our own FISU family, have lost loved ones. In their memory and knowing the power of sport - which we saw from the inspiring videos of the first lockdowns onwards - we are more committed than ever before to share the benefits of participation in sport.

"To achieve this, we will have to remain flexible, creative and empathetic."

Those three latter qualities were evident in the recent adaptation by FISU over age limits.

In order to ameliorate the impact of the postponements upon those affected generations of sporting students, FISU has stated that the age limit and eligibility rules for athletes at Chengdu 2021 will be adapted to allow the participation of students who would have been able to compete at the 2021 and 2022 editions.

The fact that Matytsin is Russian, at such a juncture of history, must be a particularly tricky circumstance for FISU. How easy or hard a decision was it to ban Russian and Belarus athletes, and to suspend the Yekaterinburg Summer World University Games?

"To exclude any athlete or any host is never easy," Saintrond responded.

Losing the services of its Russian President, Oleg Matytsin, until December this year has created a unique challenge for FISU ©Getty Images
Losing the services of its Russian President, Oleg Matytsin, until December this year has created a unique challenge for FISU ©Getty Images

"These are decisions that FISU did not take lightly and they were only made after very careful consideration and in the interest safeguarding the welfare of both our athletes and our organising committees."

So what does Saintrond see as the greatest challenges within FISU over the next five years?

"The challenge," he replied, "is one that we share with our colleagues throughout the Olympic Movement: maintaining the importance of sport for young lives at a time when they are drawn in so many directions, by their digital and social lives, by their media consumption, by brands, by expectations of academic success and so on.

"Sport has never been more important as a vector for physical, mental and societal health. But without participation, these benefits cannot be enjoyed.

"FISU is supporting this kind of participation not only at the elite level. Thanks to our Healthy Campus project, which is now in action at universities all around the world, we are working towards supporting the well-being of all students.

"Meanwhile, there is a challenge we all face in the coming years - the challenge of climate change.

"FISU is committed to doing its part by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, and ideally ahead of that.

"By signing the Sport for Climate Action Framework, FISU has taken a responsible position to ensure that today's and tomorrow's students have that fundamental requirement for the practice of sport - a healthy planet."

FISU events have often been vital development steps for Olympic athletes.

The provinces of Chungcheongbuk-do and Chungcheongnam-do, self-governing city Sejong and Daejeon metropolitan city have come together for the Chungcheong 2027 bid ©Chungcheong 2027
The provinces of Chungcheongbuk-do and Chungcheongnam-do, self-governing city Sejong and Daejeon metropolitan city have come together for the Chungcheong 2027 bid ©Chungcheong 2027

Following the recent passing in the New York State Assembly of a motion to create a commission to explore the possibility of building on Lake Placid's hosting of the 2023 FISU Winter World University Games with a future edition of the Winter Olympics, does Saintrond feel Summer or Winter World University Games can be gateway events to future Olympics?

"This welcome development is something we have come to expect," he said. "FISU has often shown the way for cities and for other rights holders: perhaps none more so than with the 2001 FISU World University Games that pioneered international multi-sport competition in Beijing.

"I have no doubt that many more cities will follow along these lines."

With fingers crossed that Lake Placid and then Chengdu will be able to restore the Winter and Summer World University Games programme to normal running, FISU officials are already looking at the prospect beyond.

In 2025, Turin, host of the 2006 Winter Games, stands ready to host the Winter World University Games, six months before the Rhine-Ruhr region in Germany is due to host a Summer World University Games.

Beyond that, there is already evidence of healthy competition between the two official contenders for the 2027 Summer World University Games named in January - Chungcheong, which is hoping to become the third South Korean city to host the event following Daegu in 2003 and Gwangju in 2015, and the American state of North Carolina.

On June 6, the North Carolina Bid Committee unveiled its new motto: "Many teams, one dream".

North Carolina's bid sees five host sub-sites named; Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill and Greensboro. Together these areas are known as North Carolina's university hub as the area includes more than 260,000 students representing 19 institutions.

Raleigh is one of the host cities in North Carolina's bid for the FISU Summer World University Games 2027 ©Getty Images
Raleigh is one of the host cities in North Carolina's bid for the FISU Summer World University Games 2027 ©Getty Images

The United States has hosted one previous FISU Summer World University Games, in Buffalo in 1993.

Earlier this month, the Chungcheong Megacity Bid Committee announced it had collected more than 500,000 signatures in support of its bid.

With some 522,110 supporters signed up as of June 9, the Bid Committee is now more than halfway to its initial target of one million signatures within two months of starting the campaign.

The Bid Committee intends to deliver the signatures to FISU Acting President Leonz Eder by August in order to emphasise interest in the South Korean region for the Games.

Asked what events such as the Chungcheong signature collection indicated as far as the healthy future of the World University Games was concerned, Saintrond responded: "The Korean University Sports Board (KUSB) are great partners of FISU, with a great track record of successful hosting. This level of support is very welcome.

"To have two advanced bids for 2027 already, despite everything the world has been through these past two and a half years, is very heartening.

"But I would not say that FISU is lucky in this situation because I know how much work has gone into making the FISU World University Games a great proposition for hosts."

Meanwhile the two contenders will strive towards the winning post which will loom up in November, when the winning candidate is set to be decided at the FISU General Assembly.