BUDAPEST — As ever, the International Olympic Committee speaks in code, and though this very first edition of the World Urban Games is not — repeat, not — an IOC event, you’d have to maybe be one of those people who doesn’t understand why breakdancing is the next big Olympic thing to see that the IOC believes WUG is an idea whose time is, like, now.
Also, that Budapest is a very cool city and, beyond that, that they have proven here to be super-responsible and trustworthy and get stuff done, even — especially — on short notice, which tells you they’re people you want to work with, and, you know, hmm.
Usually, the “media guides” they hand out at these sports events are about the most boring things you could possibly read. Do you have insomnia? Please. A selection of such guides from the past 21 years awaits. (‘Electricity: 220 volts.’ Thanks!)
In this case, however, page 5 of the WUG guide boasts a letter from IOC president Thomas Bach that calls the event an “exciting initiative” and, circling back to the very first sentence, declares, “By bringing sport to the heart of the city of Budapest, the first World Urban Games will be a great occasion to celebrate urban life, youth and culture.” Then, and this should be noted because the IOC always takes sharp account of who is doing what where, “All the athletes, fans and spectators can look forward to a world-class competition in Budapest, a city which can now add a new chapter to its already rich sporting history,” including the 2017 world swim championships, widely regarded as best-ever, even though that story involved Guadalajara bowing out late, the building of a new arena by the Danube on time and on budget and then everyone being wowed by the logistics and the crazy great fan support.
For WUG, Budapest took over in March, after an early play with a suburb of Los Angeles didn’t exactly quite work out. Since, the Great Market Hall at the city’s southern border, graffiti and all, has been repurposed; the surrounding fields now boast a 3x3 court, the parkour and BMX tracks, a legit sound stage and more. The Olympic Channel — the key takeaway from Bach’s 2014 40-point Agenda 2020 series of so-called reforms — will livestream the three days of WUG worldwide; action begins Friday.
“When [Budapest] got approved,” meaning as WUG host, “we had an insane party for a month,” everyone stoked to come, Daniel Dhers of Venezuela, the 2019 Pan American Games BMX freestyle gold medalist, said Thursday.
He elaborated: “The vibe, just being able to have this event here — it’s like a perfect excuse to come back here.”
For emphasis and again: WUG is not an IOC-overseen event. It is, to use the journalism formulation, Olympic-style, run by GAISF, the umbrella federation for literally dozens of sports federations. True, some disciplines — 3x3 basketball, BMX freestyle and breaking (Olympic jargon for breakdancing) — are or will be in the Games. Others — parkour — would seem to be logical we-got-next.
So if this is not within the four walls of the Olympic house, why are the IOC and Bach in the media guide in the first instance? Why, by (traditional and conservative) Olympic standards, so geeked up?
Because, people, WUG — and the IOC actually gets this, big time — is a lab for arguably the most important experiment ongoing in the Olympic scene: the mix, in an urban environment, of sport, music, art and street culture, all designed to bring sport out of the arenas and stadiums, make it more user-friendly, make it hipper and cooler and, most important, constructively provocative, especially to and for young people.
As GAISF president Raffaele Chiulli said at a Thursday news conference — the suits did not wear suits at this event, only polo shirts — this is deliberately, very deliberately, an experiment, but one organizers are confident, very confident, will succeed: “This is not traditional, [like] any other type of sport event.” Rather, it offers “… the ability to express yourself in different forms of art, including physical forms of art, allow me to say that.”
Or, put another way by Amjad Khan of Switzerland, emcee of the breaking competition, decked out Thursday in a black T-shirt, jeans, some intense sneakerhead-pumps and a backward-facing baseball hat with a dollar-sign insignia: “For me, there are no boundaries.”
This is what — believe it or not — the IOC is increasingly going for in the aftermath of the transformative 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires. There, organizers showed that you could combine sports events with music and art, plunk the sports across the city in parks, charge nothing (yes), have all kinds of ancillary demonstrations tied to the sports on display, make the whole thing a huge and fun festival and draw huge crowds.
In Tokyo next summer, the IOC is taking its first steps toward urbanizing the Games — skateboarding, for instance, will be on the program. Breaking is headed for 2024 in Paris — and the 16 best b-boys and 16 best b-girls are due to compete here in Budapest, a sign of how world-class the WUG competition promises to be.
All this means big change ahead. That’s just logic talking. If you want to bring some sports in — let’s say parkour — something has to go because the IOC allegedly wants to keep the Summer Games at 10,500 athletes, and the Tokyo 2020 numbers are already way, way, way past that. It also means that if you want to combine music and art with sport, and you even want to think about not charging for Olympic tickets — well, those are big discussions, but by the time we get to Los Angeles for 2028 there might be a lot of things that get thought of differently.
Which is why this first edition of WUG is such a hugely intriguing — meant in the connotatively positive sense of that word — experiment.
Anyone with even a remote interest in the Olympics ought to be paying attention to what goes down here this weekend in Budapest. The weather promises to be glorious. (A little luck never hurt anyone.) They say the bands are supposed to be great. Of course, there will be food trucks.
This is the present but it’s also the future: music, art and sport, and a little street culture thrown in for good measure, all in one place. At parkour practice late Thursday afternoon, as a golden sun kissed the shirtless dudes, it was unclear whether a tattoo and a man-bun were mandatory or just strongly advised.
“I think,” Dhers said, “the crowd is in for a good weekend.”