ABU DHABI: At a time when holding international events had become practically impossible in the aftermath of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island emerged as an example of how a safe environment could be provided for the return of major sporting competitions.
First came three UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Fight Island events in 2020 and earlier this year, and then the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship (ADWPJJC) was staged in April.
Next up for the UAE capital is the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m), which will run from Dec. 16 to 21.
The fighting mats at the new Etihad Arena will be replaced by a retractable swimming pool with an adjoining warm-up pool as the world’s best short-course swimmers head to the city for a competition initially scheduled for last year.
“We expect over 160 countries to be represented and registration has already been opened by Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC), led by (secretary-general) Aref Al-Awani,” ADSC event director, Abdulla Al-Wheibi, told Arab News.
“It’s important to note that we are in daily contact with government agencies to ensure safety measures, this is a new aspect for us.
“The safety precautions are updated from time to time. Whether it is health and safety information regarding vaccines or PCRs (polymerase chain reaction tests), we make sure they are taken on board. Also, any updates covering accommodation and transport,” he said.
The success of the previous competitions has encouraged ADSC and its partner organizations to expand the program of events. Crucially, thanks to the strict safety precautions, Abu Dhabi has become a destination that athletes feel comfortable travelling to.
“Without doubt, Abu Dhabi is one of the most popular cities to hold tournaments. It has succeeded in the past in holding big tournaments.
“What has helped is the outstanding logistics that we have here, the facilities, the capacities to host, all of these things helped in successfully hosting previous tournaments and hopefully the coming ones as well,” Al-Wheibi added.
The competition’s organization and facilities were recently given the seal of approval by the visiting Taha Al-Kishri, director of the Asia Swimming Federation, member of the executive board at FINA, and chairman of the Arabian and Oman Swimming Association.
“His feedback was very positive, and he was confident that Abu Dhabi will put on a world-class event,” said Al-Wheibi, adding that in terms of numbers and quality of swimmers, the competition could rival the standards of the Olympics.
“The total number present if you include participants, teams, and organizers will be more than 2,000. In terms of quality, this will be the highest-ranking world tournament.
“It takes place every four years, similar to the Olympics. The next one takes place in Kazan (Russia) in 2025. In terms of numbers and quality of athletes, it is the same caliber as the Olympics. The swimmers are preparing this season to take in two competitions, the Olympics, and then this one,” he added.
Al-Wheibi pointed out that having the world’s best athletes at the event would help to further raise the profile of swimming in the UAE, and he hoped it would encourage more Emiratis to take up the sport.
“We are working on several development programs, one of which is for the UAE national team which over the last two years has been overseen by an Australian technical director. This program is not just during the tournaments but an ongoing one, because our target is to produce a talented group over the coming years.
“Swimming in particular requires long-term planning if you are to produce world champions. Abu Dhabi Sports Council will continue to strongly back these swimmers,” he said.
Other initiatives will involve schools and academies as ADSC looks to create a community ahead of the competition, which will also see the three-day FINA World Aquatics Convention take place on the sidelines.
“It will be attended by international entities that will display products that are related to swimming. There will also be clinics and workshops, and the subjects of the latest training methods will be discussed, and doping will be tackled. It will be a sporting festival,” he added.
The centerpiece of the event will be Yas Island’s Etihad Arena, which was launched with UFC Fight Island 3 in January.
Al-Wheibi said: “It’s a wonderful arena with world-class specifications. It’s one of the most beautiful locations you could hold this tournament in. Having the Etihad Arena has massively aided in holding sporting events because it has the capabilities to hold any event in ideal circumstances.
“The facilities it has, such as seating, offices, VIP sections, entrances, athlete facilities, media centers, and the compound, make it complete.
“Add to that its location on Yas Island, a beautiful island that includes top-class hotels and facilities. We recently inspected the new Hilton Yas hotel adjacent to the arena. It has over 500 rooms and will act at the official headquarters for the tournament. Then there are the W Hotel, Crown Plaza, and others which will be used by the athletes and technical staff,” he added.
Having all these facilities in close proximity would, according to Al-Wheibi, make it easier to host competitions by reducing the need for transportation, similar to an Olympic village.
While UFC Fight Island allowed a maximum of 2,000 fans into Etihad Arena in January, it has not yet been decided if the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) will have a live audience. Either way, fans will have an opportunity to catch the action.
“As things stand there is no final decision on the attendance of fans, but if a live audience was to be allowed, it will be at 30 percent of the total capacity, in accordance with safety restrictions.
“We have to consider those coming from abroad as well, it will be limited, and an announcement will be made ahead of the tournament. We will be using our sports television channels to ensure the live broadcast of the tournament,” Al-Wheibi said.