I recently returned from a 2 week visit to Almaty, Kazakhstan where I attended the 2012 Mens FINA World League Superfinal, the first major water polo event ever held in Kazakhstan. I thought I would take some time to share my impressions of the event, the country and the state of international water polo as we head to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
I attended the event with my colleagues from ProAnox which was a major sponsor of the event. ProAnox also supports the USA National Mens Team with our all natural performance products so we thought we would show some solidarity by attending.
Located between Russia to the North, China to the East, and a variety of –stans to the south, Kazakhstan is one of the largest land locked countries in the world. The capital is Asatana in the north with Almaty the nations largest city (and commercial center) on the countries southern border with Kyrgystan. The city of Almaty is at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains, one of the branches of the Himalayans. The views in and around Almaty are stunning…hard to beat the view from my hotel room.
Kazakhstan is culturally Asian with Soviet Russian influence- over 1 million ethnic Germans were deported by Josef Stalin from Russia to Kazakhstan in the 1940’s in advance of Hitlers invading armies…despite the fact that most of the ethnic Germans had lived in Russia for 200+ years. This group of Germans entered a country that was largely small bands of Asian nomads living as they did hundreds of years ago, with horse and goat herds, moving from place to place with their herds and yurts.
The event was organized by the Kazakhstan Swimming Federation and quite easily the best run, most organized and spectacular water polo event I have ever attended. To overcome the language barriers, each attendee was given a volunteer who spoke their native language. That volunteer stayed with each team and group through the event to arrange transportation, sightseeing and give assistance in general. Some of you will remember my February article about Lorens trip to Kazakhstan where he came back raving about the beauty of the women in that country… the Kazahkstan organizers seemed to have found every one of the stunning young women in their squad of volunteers
Our guide and translator, Saida Khamraeva, seemed to support Lorens positive view of the females in the country. While Loren cannot remember what I say to him, he seemed to have no trouble remembering Saidas name or text address. Saida is a 20 year old marketing student at the Almaty University, fluent in Russian, Kazak and English and working hard to try to find a way to finish her University education in the United States.
The event itself was spectacular, with an opening ceremony and player presentations featuring native dancers and players, evocative native music and myriad refreshments throughout each day. Games were on time with a calm, error free table and volunteers at every corner to help spectators. The city was covered with 200+ full sized billboards advertising the event and the home town team played to a packed house every day. The facility had obviously received all new paint and a complete facelift that gave great exposure to all of the advertisers. Event tickets were printed to echo the billboard graphics with programs professionally printed with all rosters and team information.
The event was filmed by 6 TV cameras and broadcast through Europe and Russia on TV with the semis and finals available by free webcast to areas not in the TV coverage area.
The Kazakhstan Swimming Federation, Andrey Kryukov and Tournament Director Alan Balfanbayev set a very high bar for future international events…it will be hard to follow the professionalism and marketing extravaganza of this event in an otherwise unknown corner of the world.
As far as the water polo itself….well, most teams were clearly in training for the Olympics. All of the teams (except China who did not qualify) were doing heavy weight training and swimming through the event and competed at about 60% of what we should expect to see at the Olympics. It was great to see Ivan Perez from Spain still a major factor in the game at age 42 as well as Ricardo Azevedo, head coach of China, one of my own personal favorites. Look for my interview with Ricardo next month.
The Kazakhstan Swimming Federation invited many LEN and FINA people to attend the event to witness their water polo extravaganza and none were disappointed. For myself and Loren, who have attended many national and international water polo events, in was a glaring contrast of how an under-populated second world country found the marketing resources to out-perform every event I have seen held in the US…arguably, one of the most wealthy countries in the world with more athletes playing the sport than in the rest of the world combined.
During the competition, a small, skinny young boy named Vanya Sachkov from the local Almaty age group club wanted to practice his English on our group of Americans. Vanya is crazy about water polo and could not wait to tell us that his older brother had played in and currently lives in New York. Vanya showed us his most prized possession- an 11 x 17 color photo of his brother Daniel standing with Merrill Moses wearing a medal from USA Mens Nationals. Daniel was a standout player from Kazakhstan who played for and graduated from St Francis and later the MBA program at UOP who now owns an investment firm in New York. Vanyas dream is to attend a US University and play water polo just like his big brother.
Later in the day, Vanya had the opportunity to meet the entire USA Mens National Team who autographed his program and looked at his photograph of his brother, each taking the time to say a few words to him. Merrill Moses graciously took the time to have his photograph taken with Vanya holding his picture. Vanya spent the rest of the tournament looking at the signatures in his program…and began his own special memories of an Olympic team that took the time to speak with and encourage him to follow his own Olympic Dream.
Great event, great PR by the USA Men and an interesting look at a corner of the world I would never have visited on my own.