World Student Games: Sheffield's forgotten sporting spectacle

  • Published
Teams from different countries participate in the opening ceremonyImage source, Picture Sheffield
Image caption,
A grand opening ceremony marked the start of the 1991 World Student Games in Sheffield

It is 30 years since Sheffield hosted the 16th World Student Games. At the time, it was the largest sporting event hosted in the UK since 1948 and thousands of international athletes, some who would become household names, took part. But the games have been largely forgotten outside South Yorkshire. And some who do remember regret the city's decision to welcome young competitors. But should they?

It started with a spectacle. Performers dressed in waistcoats and flat caps carried hammers as they stepped through a specially choreographed performance to celebrate Sheffield's steel-producing heritage.

Team GB's flag carrier, Steve Backley, remembers stepping out into the purpose-built Don Valley stadium as the Princess Royal, who opened the event, looked on.

A student at the time, the future Olympic medallist remembers the thrill of emerging into "the biggest athletics stadium in the country".

"It was amazing," he says. "It was a lovely warm summer, 25,000 seats... it felt enormous".

"It felt exactly as you would expect for a global championships...It was world-class."

Matt Bell, a teenager at the time, worked as a trackside volunteer alongside fellow members of his high school athletics team.

"It was fantastic. Because we were volunteers we got an all areas pass. We went to the opening and closing ceremonies. We went to lots and lots of the events. It was an exciting time for us to be involved in something like that."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Steve Backley won the javelin event at the 1991 games

The World Student Games, or Universiade - a portmanteau of university and Olympiad - is the second-largest multi-sport event in the world. Usually held every two years, it is eclipsed only by the Olympics in terms of its scope.

Although less well-known among the public, Backley says, the Universiade is a huge occasion for young sportspeople, and a springboard or starting block to bigger things.

"When you look at the results that's one thing that gives you an idea of how other countries perceive it and how seriously they take it," he says.

"It felt big and I'm incredibly proud to say that I won it twice [in West Germany in 1989 and Sheffield in 1991]. I have great memories of the whole thing."

While Backley's memory is unequivocal, in Sheffield the legacy of the games and people's opinions about them are more complicated. It was hoped a large event would help to regenerate the city after "years of misery" in the 1980s, according to Clive Betts, council leader at the time and now MP for Sheffield South East.

"Steelworks closing down, mass redundancies, then the works being demolished" had cast a gloom over Sheffield, Mr Betts says. It was felt the games would usher in a new era of positivity.

In the run-up to the event, a raft of new sporting venues equipped to meet the needs of elite athletes were built around Sheffield, some occupying derelict industrial sites. The government did not offer financial support, so the city had to pay for these itself.

Mr Betts is keen to point out that hosting the event cost £10m ($13.8m) at the time - less than 1% of the council's budget, according to him - and this was paid off in two years. But others are quick to point to the loans taken out to build venues such as the Don Valley Stadium, Ponds Forge International Sports Centre and Sheffield Arena. This debt has been refinanced four times, and the council says the final cost will be £658m ($913.5m) when it is finally paid off in 2024.

Image source, Sheffield Star
Image caption,
Clive Betts, pictured at the opening ceremony, believes Sheffield has benefitted from hosting the games

The lingering row over the cost has, some say, overshadowed memories of the event and outlasted some of the venues built for it. The Don Valley Stadium was demolished in 2013 as part of cost-saving measures approved by the city council. A section of the running track's finishing line was dug up and presented to Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill, who had trained there.

Indeed, despite attracting about 6,000 athletes, thousands of spectators and enlisting hundreds of volunteers, the games are barely remembered outside Sheffield. The city was unable to broker a deal to show the competition on the four main terrestrial TV channels. They found a home on satellite broadcaster BSB, but its audiences were a fraction of those who tuned in via their home aerial.

Peter Taylor, emeritus professor of sports economics at Sheffield Hallam University, says the event was never likely to appeal to mainstream audiences.

"Although it's big, it's second only to the Olympic games at the time in numbers, it isn't attractive to the general public. Because it's all about up-and-coming stars, not current superstars."

Image caption,
Councillor Shaffaq Mohammed has been a vocal critic of the debt created as a result of the games

"Was it worth it?" is a question often asked about the decision to stage the event in Sheffield. Shaffaq Mohammed, current leader of the council's opposition Lib Dem group, says the games were a "total pipe dream" that "saddled the city with debts".

"It wasn't going to really transform the city," he says. "We've had to remortgage to get lower payments over a longer period simply because we couldn't afford it. We would have shut down as a city otherwise.

"I don't think I've seen any other British city ever go for the World Student Games again. That just tells you everything you need to know."

Mr Betts, who disputes the £658m figure, argues that the games left a "legacy of success", and that building the venues was a "catalyst for the regeneration of the whole old industrial area of Sheffield".

"Those facilities over the years have attracted millions of participants, international competitors and many spectators to the arena," he says.

Image source, Sheffield Star
Image caption,
The games did draw crowds to Sheffield's new arenas, even if relatively few were watching at home

Prof Taylor says the debt from the games has to be set against the positive economic and social impacts, and it is estimated the spin-off benefits run to tens of millions of pounds a year.

"Put all those things together, and although it's not cash in the till, what you've got is a substantial financial equivalent return to the city," he says.

While sport history may have forgotten about Sheffield's games, sport has not forgotten about the city. In 2003, the English Institute of Sport Sheffield opened in the Don Valley's Olympic Park, and remains the largest multi-sports venue in the UK. Athlete Sam Talbot, who is training there for the decathlon, says the facilities the games brought are "amazing".

"Even 30 years on people are still benefitting from it," he says. "In my personal opinion that definitely outweighs the negatives of the cost."

And, says volunteer Matt Bell, for those who were there, the games were unforgettable.

"We were kitted out, there were a lot of people wanting to talk to you, lots of nationalities, a real buzz about the city. It was a nice thing for us to do, but I look back with pride at that time."

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.