Thursday, 10 September 2015

Hosting an International Sport Event - A student's experience

University of Worcester Arena

Those who know me will probably agree that I'm quite a passionate person. One of those passions for a long time has been event organising and from an early age I've been able to put it into action whether it be a local cricket tournament or a school holiday coaching clinic. It's not surprising therefore that it's an area within our Sport Management degree I'm very much looking forward to and my understanding is that during our second semester in Year 2 we'll actually be running our own live event!

Volunteering at the European Wheelchair Basketball Championships recently gave me a great opportunity to experience some of the things it takes to run an international sporting event from the inside. Perhaps the most noticeable thing right from the outset was just what a vital role teamwork and communication play in ensuring the success in hosting an event of this nature.

Just from the logistics side alone, it only takes one break in communication, one delay or something unforeseen to have a knock-on affect on the entire schedule for the rest of the day. It's therefore not surprising that it takes a large team, regular communication and everyone working towards a common goal in order to minimise problems, to ensure a successful event.

Being my first international event, I'm far from being an expert but I still believe it's important to take note of the positive as well as negative aspects and to apply the best practices and improvements into other events one may have involvement with in the future. As mentioned previously, I thought the tournament was an overwhelming success and when pointing out areas of improvement (in my opinion) it's by no means a criticism to the event or the organisers. I thought everyone did an outstanding job and worked excessively long hours throughout the two weeks of the tournament and undoubtedly weeks and even months leading up to it.

As a city, I thought Worcester was a perfect choice. Its central location makes it easily accessible from various airports and it was pretty much a centre point for teams and officials arriving from Heathrow, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester.

New Road, Worcestershire County Cricket Ground & Cathedral
The actual venue, The University of Worcester Arena, is perfectly located just on the edge of the city and within a mile away, in between both university campuses which provided accommodation and meals to the teams and officials.

Worcester itself of course is a beautiful English city, rich in culture and history and provided a perfect base for visitors. Both the Arena as well as the campuses were wheelchair accessible and purposely built for this kind of event. Located immediately next to the Arena is the Riverside Building which formed the perfect location from wherein the event's operations were run, meetings were held and organisers were based.

Riverside Building next to the Arena
An area I thought could be learned from was the fact that we only had one Team Liaison meeting and it was only a couple of days before the end. I think it would have been much better had we all met at the start of the event, not only to be introduced to one another but also be properly briefed and be given an opportunity to raise immediate questions. Then getting together on a couple of occasions to offer feedback, discuss and address possible issues and concerns and ironing out any issues which may have occurred early on, I think would have been a good idea. This would have been a great help to those who have never done the role before and a perfect opportunity for those who have experience to pass their knowledge, help and suggestions on. A perfect example is Dave, the Liaison of Turkey, who worked at the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics or Sonja (Italy Ladies), Helen (Sweden) and Sibylla (Germany) who were Liaisons at Euro 2013 in Frankfurt. I think it would have been nice for them to have been given an opportunity to share their best practice and perhaps it's something that could be improved on.

Zuzka and Laura at St. John's Campus were always helpful
The staff at St. John's Campus where we were based were amazing as well and more than deserve a mention, in particular Zuzka and Laura. From the moment I arrived waiting to welcome the Italian team who were detailed by more than three hours, I was greeted by cheerful smiles and always quick to offer their help. Like so many campuses, it seemed like a maze in the beginning but nothing seemed to be too much for them and instead of just shown directions or pointed in the right direction, they'd even walk me there. It's service like that, when people go that little extra mile which makes the job all the more enjoyable.

The quantity of food on offer was plenty I thought despite the odd grumble from one or two people. The quality perhaps wasn't always outstanding but then that's not always easy when catering for hundreds of people in a buffet style. The biggest downside in my opinion was the fact that it lacked variety, and after two weeks I think most people got a bit tired of the same breakfast, same vegetables and same carbohydrates. The juice certainly wasn't of excellent standard and if it was my event I'd certainly look at ways of improving the catering element. I never had a problem in clearing my team's table, despite many of the players often refusing that I do, but I do think they often seemed under staffed in the dining area and having someone to clear tables on behalf of the guests, not to forget that most of them are in wheelchairs, would have been an extra bit of service that could have gone a long way.

Talking of saving time earlier on, a huge amount of time was lost all having had to queue up in one line for food. There was definitely enough space to separate the buffet table into two or more sections. I'm thinking in particular during breakfast it would have been much better to have hot food let's say at one table, cereals and continental items at another and maybe even drinks, coffee and tea at another. Too often did people have to join a queue having to wait a long time before they got to a section they actually wanted.

Sibylla, Germany's Liaison worked at Euro2013 in Frankfurt 
I thought transport ran pretty well. The drivers were all friendly and most of them very helpful and it was great that they had their own little marquee on the campus. Perhaps it would have been a good idea if each driver were allocated a specific team or given a notice to put up against the window as to which team he or she was transporting, like the minibuses that carried the wheelchairs. Having said that, it was never really a problem finding out which bus was scheduled for which team and I always made it part of my duty to find out which bus was ours about ten minutes before departure. Although the minibuses followed the team bus in convoy, I also think it might have been better had they left a few minutes earlier in order to try and get the chairs offloaded earlier, ensuring it was always ready for when the players arrived.

All the volunteers at the Arena were amazing and I can't give them enough credit. They were always quick in loading, offloading and moving the wheelchairs and constantly carried a smile on their face! They were a joy to work with and a credit to the event! I guess there wasn't much choice in the matter, but it was a great shame that the goods lift was blocked by the enormous goal construction. Perhaps one of the only noticeable things missing in the design of the arena for a large event is an in and out area. We always felt as if we were up against the time, trying to get the team as much time possible to prepare. It would have saved so much time if there was one area where the wheelchairs of teams who were leaving the Arena were taken through and another area for chairs of teams entering the arena. The fact that there was only one loading area often created "traffic jams". Another idea that would have saved a bit of time is for a schedule to be put on the wall or noticeboard of which changing room was allocated for which team so that it was visible and known immediately on arrival. Again, although this was not a huge problem mainly because I ran ahead and made it my duty to find out as soon as I stepped off the bus, there were occasions where some teams went in to the wrong changing rooms causing the odd problem or two.

These guys were amazing!

With regards to scheduling in particular training, I think it would have been a good idea to allow a ten or fifteen minute gap between teams' training times on a specific court and stated clearly on the time sheet. Although we were told later on that the first fifteen minutes included this "crossover" time, it would have been better if this was written on the time sheet instead of putting one team finishing at say 13:15 and the next team starting at 13:15. Had it read Team 1 finishing at 13:15 (expected to be off the court at 13:20) and Team 2 starting at 13:30 it would have created less confusion and hassle too. This is exactly the kind of issue that could have been discussed at Liaison meetings early in the event. Again, overall it wasn't a major problem and the longer the tournament went on, the smoother things went.

I liked the system that was in place for requesting changes to transport times, training and meal times. We generally had to give 24 hours notice through filling and handing in a request form and was then notified of the changes by text. The text however just stated that your request has been accepted - I think it would have been even better if it included the new time as sometimes you'd have more than one request pending and therefore there was uncertainty sometimes as to which request was granted.

All in all, I think the event was an overwhelming success and the organising committee can be very proud of themselves. From a student's perspective, it was an incredible experience and it's given me a great insight into what it takes to run a global event. As reflected upon within this blog, there are numerous things one can take away from an event like this and apply it next time to make it even better. It's very rare I suppose to have an event without any problems, but I guess it's all about minimising the risks, having plans in place for when things don't go according to plan and applying best practice from previous events, making it even better.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Volunteering at the Euro2015 Wheelchair Basketball Championships - Team Liaison for Italy

What an experience!!

I don't think words can really sum up the amazing two weeks I had in Worcester, working as a Team Liaison for Italy at the European Wheelchair Basketball Championships. Not only for being involved at an international event, but also for being part of a very passionate Italian team! For many players, this was a lifelong dream, an opportunity to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The Italians made me feel very much part of the team which was illustrated on the second day already when I was handed an Italian shirt. I felt very proud being given this but of course it had to go in the wash at some stage. The moment I was seen not wearing the blu e bianco, I was asked why I'm not wearing it. Replying that it was in the wash wasn't a good enough reason and I was quickly told that washing could be done at night - advise I soon took on board :-) I felt very much embraced in being part of the Azzurri spirit already!

Two things I learned about the Italians within the first couple of days is that one, they're very passionate and two, they love their coffee! Not any old coffee though, Italian coffee made from a Moka! It's fair to say I've been converted having been invited for one on numerous occasions throughout the fortnight. I was even given a lesson on how to make it - I think that was the main reason in the end, so that I could serve them :-) Not that I would have had a problem in doing so though - they were some of the most amazing people I've ever had the privilege to meet and work with.

Originally I was appointed as Team Liaison for the Men's team, but on arrival I was informed that the ladies team's liaison wasn't going to arrive until late on Friday night. That meant that I had to work with the ladies team for a few days as well which despite being very challenging and demanding at times, I thoroughly enjoyed! I guess it's fair to say that the expectancy to qualify for Rio wasn't as high for the ladies and as heavy on their shoulders as it was for the men and despite not being one of Europe's strongest nations, they had a great team spirit and never short of a joke or two! It was thanks to them that my Italian got a bit of a kick start as a few of the girls were very quick to teach me some Italian. So much for thinking after the first couple of days that most of them couldn't speak any English!! It was a pleasure working with them, and even after Sonja arrived, they still embraced me as part of their team as well.

It didn't take long to be embraced as being part of the team
Such was the experience that I could probably write a book about it, so I'll rather try and summarise as much as possible on here with a link or two to more stories, experiences and my opinion and views on the event itself and what I thought was well organised as against some improvements that could perhaps be done to make it even better. Overall, I thought it was brilliantly organised though and a lot of credit should go to the organisers and everyone involved. Of course not everything will always run perfectly and improvements can always be done, but in my opinion I thought it went very well and definitely an event we can be proud of.

So, what is a Team Liaison and what was my main role some may be asking? In short and perhaps the easiest way to put it, my main purpose was to be the link between the team and the event organisers. Making sure that the team is always on time, whether it be for meals, boarding the coach, training, matches or anything else scheduled. I was also required to request changes in the schedule with regards to cancelling or changing training times, which of course has a knock-on affect on the rest of the schedule like transport and meal times and therefore we always had to bare in mind what impact this might have before even putting in a request. The biggest challenge would come in when the team doesn't get a request granted - luckily we managed to get over most of the humps but it's often difficult being caught in the middle.
Staying on top of the schedule

The role is very much about always being there for the team, acting promptly when given a request, having an answer at all times and delivering what's expected in order to make things run as smoothly as possible, occasionally going that extra mile like buying a surprise birthday cake or two, arranging unscheduled transport and being on call pretty much 24/7. In the end, it's all worth it!

Dionigi Cappelletti
The most difficult few minutes of the fortnight however, was having to deal with the sudden and unexpected releasing of the coach. Following defeat to Great Britain in the quarter finals, bearing in mind Italy weren't out of the competition yet as the top 5 teams qualify for Rio, Dionigi Cappelletti was ordered to fly back the next morning. There was an uncomfortable mood in the camp, understandably so. Italy lost the lead shortly before the end of the 2nd quarter which they were never able to regain, having lead throughout the match and in the process squandering a chance of automatically qualifying for Rio.

 Ahmed Aaourahi
Word on this wasn't known until breakfast - we all ate together but on my way back I was stopped and asked to arrange transport for Dionigi, immediately. I could see him stand in the distance with his bags. I knew straight away....... As I accompanied him to the minibus, Dionigi stopped and gave me a hug and with a brave smile, turned to me and said, "You're a good man Ben, thank you for everything." I struggled to find the right words to say other than "I'm so, so sorry and you don't deserve this" to which he replied to me as he got into the minibus, "That's sport". Pity though..... but a harsh reality. In the short time I got to know Dionigi, I found he's a great guy and no doubt a wonderful coach too and I wish him all the best.

There was no time to ponder on it though as it was back to business straight away. Italy were playing Israel for a place in the final play-off match for a qualification position in the afternoon. As was the case in the group stages, Italy won comfortably but unfortunately came up second best against Spain and in the process finished 6th, a heartbreaking one position away from qualifying for Rio.

Fillipo Carossino
Nothing could ever describe the emotions that ran through the camp, not to mention the players' who absolutely gave it their all. It was a bitter pill to swallow and for the second time in as many days, it was difficult to find the right words of support. Looking back at it now, I think it makes being a sport fanatic even more special. The fact that we love the thrill it brings but at the same time having to absorb the pain and sorrow that comes with it. I felt terrible..... feel for the players who've worked at least 4 years towards this..... many who'll never have another chance. But in the words of Dionigi Cappelletti, "That's sport". And that I think is what makes being part of it unique.

There was an incredible sadness within the camp - understandably so. During times like these it's hard not to question yourself as to why we choose to have such a passion for sport because not everyone can win. Too often a defeat leaves somebody distraught. The reality however is, every single player is already a winner. I've never worked within disability sport before until this event but it's one of the best things I have ever done.

Interview with Carlo Di Giusto
To see the work these guys put in, how easy they make every day tasks look, the skill they show on the court, all despite various struggles they have all endured through life but not allowing it to hold them back and most importantly almost always carrying a smile on their face. That is special and something I want to be part of a lot more. I've learned a lot through this fortnight. One being the fact that as most human beings, we are very quick to complain - I'll think twice before complaining again about the little things in life such as traffic, the weather or anything else which isn't a touch compared with what some people have had to endure - yet most of them carry a constant smile on their face and are living life to the full.

Showing their appreciation
Some players will unfortunately never have an opportunity to compete at the Paralympic Games again and some of them already announced their retirement. On the Saturday afternoon after the game Galliano Marchionni called me to his room and presented me with his playing kit as a thank you saying he doesn't know if he'll play for Italy again. I hope that's not the case! Matteo Cavagnini, the captain, also gave me a fine bottle of Italian wine as a thank you, both being very special moments!

That evening was the first time they were allowed to socialise and Galliano, who also have his own restaurant, treated us to some wonderful steak. We all gathered around the kitchen and with a cold beverage or two for the first time, everyone were relaxing and enjoying a laugh, yet carrying inside the hurt of narrowly missing out on a trip of a lifetime by one narrow result.

Incredible memories & friendships were made

Commiserations Italy for not making it to Rio but congratulations for not only the fighting spirit you've shown on the court but also off it. Thank you for making me feel part of your team and the new friendships we've built. Until we meet again.......