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How Birmingham’s Hospitality Won Over The World

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Vulcan and Vesta were both mascots and ambassadors for the City of Birmingham as visitors from around the globe were in town for The World Games 2022. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)
By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times

Marathon was not on the list of events in the 11th edition of The World Games 2022 (TWG 2022) but that’s what CEO Nick Sellers and a cast that could include tens of thousands just completed. It was a venture that spanned the International World Games Association (IWGA) awarding The Games to Birmingham to native son Lionel Richie sending everyone home Sunday with his signature song, “All Night Long.”

Organizers would agree that rendition was appropriate as they worked countless nights – and days – in preparation and execution of this massive event that opened July 7 and closed July 17.

“It’s been a marathon for our city, our leaders, our board,” Sellers said of the countless phone calls and planning meetings with board members from around the area. “This thing was won in 2015. (Now) we’ll all embrace and look back over what we’ve achieved together. That’s what I’m most grateful for.”

Mayor Randall Woodfin said, for him, the spirit of Birmingham stood out and the city came together when it mattered most.

“We’ve said this for years and now we’ve made the world believers – Birmingham belongs on the big stage,” said the mayor. “The eyes of the world were on us, and we delivered. Birmingham has proven that it can handle sporting events, big-named concerts and accommodate international travelers with grace and style . . . the past 11 days shows that the Magic City can offer a first-class experience.”

City Council President Wardine Alexander said she was pleased to see international visitors came away with a positive impression of Birmingham.

“When we reflect on The World Games, let’s think about the positive image that we gave to people all around the world, and when you talk about Southern hospitality, we talk about the hospitality of the Magic City,” she said. “I’m just excited for the 3,600 athletes that had an opportunity to come here and see Birmingham and see it at its best.”

Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight, who served on The World Games Board of Directors, acknowledged the region-wide teamwork.

“One of many things I am proud of is the unity of our cities, county, state and our corporate community who came together and worked in unison in order to produce the largest international event in the Southeast since the 1996 Olympics,” Knight said. “Citizens working together as one to make this happen. And we salute the men and women in blue from all over who have kept us safe. “

Sandwiched between the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at Protective Stadium were 34 sports consisting of 58 disciplines and 223 medal events involving 3,600 of the world’s best athletes.

Among the winners, according to global officials was the City of Birmingham. “I dare to say,” said IWGA Press Officer Hermann Kewitz, “The World Games 2022 in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, has been a striking victory.”

IWGA CEO Joachim Gossow announced that TWG 2022 had tripled the audience on the Olympic Channel of the previous two Games through the first six days.

“That’s a benefit to Birmingham, getting known worldwide,” Gossow said. “That was one of their missions (when Birmingham) applied for these Games. We had a lot of coverage in Europe. More than 100 hours were solely broadcast in the German-speaking areas but also televised in Spain, in France, in Italy. We were covered completely in South America.”

Olivia Mannon, an alumna of The Altamont School in Birmingham, was a member Israeli women’s lacrosse team. The former Fresno State athlete felt the dual pride of representing the nation of Israel and the City of Birmingham.

“I never thought really Birmingham would like be this international hub,” she said after helping Israel to a fifth-place World Games finish. “To see the city now on this international stage, incredible. I hope, echoing what Mayor Woodfin said in the Opening Ceremonies, ‘We’re putting Birmingham on the map.’ I think going forward, Birmingham hosting The World Games is doing that. I think people will come back because of their experience at The World Games.”

“More Magnificent”

Gene Hallman, whose Bruno Event Team has coordinated a number of high-profile sporting events in Alabama — tennis’ Davis Cup and Fed Cup, Olympic soccer and gameday experiences for football games for the University of Alabama, UAB and the Magic City Classic, among other things – said TWG 2022 eclipsed them all.

“. . . it was bigger and more magnificent in terms of Birmingham’s role,” he said.  “To have the expanse of these Games held in this community was such an honor and is the biggest international sporting event to ever come to our community.”

Hallman’s biggest takeaway from The Games was the unprecedented, unified approach the community had to hosting the world.

“When I say community, I’m including all the way from Oak Mountain to the Hoover Met to all the venues here in the City of Birmingham,” he said. “It was just the most unified, coordinated effort by far that I’ve ever had the pleasure of being involved with.

“Yeah, there were challenges along the way, but it was always approached from a team and collaborative standpoint,” Hallman continued. “We were challenged as a community to take on this complex project. We had to step beyond our normal parameters of how we get things done. By stepping outside of our comfort zone, by being pushed to be excellent at something that is so big and broad, (we were made) a better community.”

Volunteers

Across the board, the 3,300 volunteers have been tabbed the most valuable players of TWG 2022. Woodfin was among the local and visiting officials who repeatedly thanked volunteers for their selfless efforts to make guests from across the country and around the globe feel at home.

The mayor made that point as he spoke during the Closing Ceremony.

“It was you, the people of Birmingham, who made our guests feel welcome,” he said. “Thanks for your patience, your generosity and your overwhelming southern hospitality. It was you who, along with our partners and organizers, were able to work side-by-side, hand-in-hand to help prepare and establish our facilities to host our Games.”

Knight said the volunteers who gave of their time and energy to make the Games a success “stood out in my heart . . . They were enthusiastic, energetic and proud to be part of this historical moment. We simply could not have done this without them and say thank you so very much.”

Sheneka Burt was in the stands for the Closing Ceremony after volunteering as an ambassador during The Games.

“My experience as a volunteer was phenomenal,” the Clay resident said. “I got to meet a lot of people from around the world.”

Alabaster’s Marvin Shackelford, 72, a retiree from sales and marketing at Coca-Cola UNITED, was another volunteer.

“We shared the same sentiments: Be at your best behavior and try to make people feel the way you would want to feel if you were out of the country,” he said, adding that his work didn’t feel like work. “That’s what you want your guests to remember, you being at your best and doing your best.”

‘Not For Lack of Effort’

Sellers, The World Games 2022 CEO, acknowledged having received complaints from some small businesses who didn’t receive the boost they thought The Games would deliver.

“Those of you who we didn’t meet their expectations, I will personally apologize for that. It was not for lack of effort,” he said. “But I also want to thank you for staying with us and recognizing that even if they didn’t the receive short-term benefits from these Games, I am truly confident that there will be long term benefits for them and everyone in this region because of the success of The Games.”

There were also issues over which no one had control, including temperatures which hovered around the 100-degree mark. “TWG 2022 was exciting, it was fun, it was hot, but, it was absolutely great,” Knight said. “We have witnessed the tears of both triumph and defeat, and witnessed victory being snatched from the jaws of defeat in the centuries old sport of Tug-of-War. The highlight reels are loaded with many memorable moments and outstanding achievements. The memories of The Games will last a lifetime for those who attended.

Successful Resume

Overall, The World Games 2022 will be a significant part of metro Birmingham’s sporting event resume, Hallman said. A community’s ability to recruit major sporting events is bolstered by a successful resume.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it will directly lead to other things coming to our community – to compete, to bring athletes, to bring visitors,” he said. “It’s hard to envision what those may be. We never would have thought that Birmingham would have landed The World Games. We didn’t think we’d end up hosting an entire professional football league’s [USFL] regular season in one city for the first time in the history of professional football.

“With our new facilities that we have now – Protective Stadium, the renovated Legacy Arena and then the existing facilities like CrossPlex, the Hoover Met, Legion Field, we’ve got such a wide variety of venues that will allow us to attract events heretofore we could not aspire to get.”

Knight said he expects to see some more international events headed to the Magic City based on something he heard over and over again from the athletes, the delegations and the visitors who were here.

“I can’t recall how many times I have heard ‘Everyone has been so nice,’” he said. “However, that does not surprise me, because that is who we are. I sincerely believe that ‘hospitality’ will be our biggest export from these games.”

He added, “The impact on our community will be measured in the days ahead and the years to come.  We have sown the seed, done our best and when all is said and done, Birmingham will be a shining star in the eyes of the world.”

Times staff writer Ryan Michaels contributed to this report.