The capital city of Chuvash Republic last night enthusiastically welcomed representatives from over 50 nations of the global athletics family in an impressive opening ceremony of the 23rd IAAF World Race Walking Cup, Cheboksary, Russia, Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 May 2008.
Before this weekend most of the foreign guests who assembled in the spectator tribunes of the 20,000 capacity ‘Olympiysky’ stadium on Friday (9 May) would have been unable to have pin-pointed the location of the Chuvash Republic on a map of the world let alone possess an essence of its spirit or culture.
A two-hour show of exuberant, enthusiastically performed musical and colourful visual displays by nearly 5000 Cheboksarians will have left all who were in attendance with pleasant indelible memories of this Republic and the warmth of its people.
Chuvashia which is situated in the centre of the European part of Russia in the heart of the Volga-Vyatka region is a part of the Russian Federation and has a population of 1,350,000 of which 458,000 inhabit the capital Cheboksary.
Anyone not appreciating the relative isolation of this beautiful city which is located on the southern bank of the Volga River some 600km from Moscow should fly into neighbouring Kazan and travel the 3 hours by road between these two cities (there are no regular international air connections to Cheboksary itself) which lie 120km (75miles) apart. The state of the roads, strewn with stones and littered with 100s of huge potentially axle breaking holes every few kilometres, makes the experience of travelling to Cheboksary something comparable I suppose to competing in a FIA Motor Rally!
Yet the city boasts a rich history dating back to 1469 and along with several museums and galleries is exceptionally proud of its 25 orthodox churches and 4 monasteries. It is also known for its brewing company, which was founded almost 30 years ago, and its unique brewing museum.
It’s a quiet city by western European standards but a justifiably proud and happy place whose population of mainly Turkic descent, a characteristic which is physically exposed by their generally round central Asian looking shaped faces, seem genuinely intrigued to greet and welcome peoples from western Europe with their more angular visages. East meets west in Cheboksary, ethnically and culturally.
Cheboksary's picturesque city centre is full of trees and small parks, and this lovely vista is bordered to the north by the Volga which also intrudes majestically into the town's heart via a wide bay on one side of which the race walking course is situated.
Last night, in the presence of Nikolay Fedorov, President of Chuvash Republic, Lamine Diack, President of the IAAF, and Valentin Balakhnichev, President of ARAF, the flags of all competing nations were unfurled and paraded with great gusto to the sounds of a varied array of 1970s and 80s pop, jazz and classical music. The show was delivered with the precision and passion of an Olympic opening, and it came as no surprise to learn that the hosts intend to bid for further global sporting events.
The 1000s of locals who excitedly queued to enter the stadium for this all ticketed sell-out ceremony will have returned home happy that their contact with the wider world is only just beginning but then that’s what international sport is about at its best - bringing greater understanding between different cultures. Likewise, foreign visitors who depart the Chuvash Republic on Monday morning will certainly have gained positively from their experience this weekend.
Chris Turner for the IAAF