To the casual sports fan, Abu Dhabi is probably best known for its staging of the season finale of the Formula 1 World Championship.
The capital of the United Arab Emirates has hosted an F1 race since 2009 and will do so again from December 9-12 this year.
Normally, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix would bring the curtain down on the emirate’s world-class sporting calendar, which spans the very best of F1, cycling, golf, tennis, triathlon, marathon running, jiu-jitsu, cricket and more. But 2021 will be different as the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) arrive in spectacular style from December 16-21, providing a huge boost to a flourishing aquatics scene that is underpinned by elite competitive action.
The event, which will attract more than 1,100 athletes from over 180 federations, will mark the climax of a long-term partnership between the UAE and Fina, the global governing body of aquatic sports.
The Championships will take place at the Etihad Arena, an 18,000-seat venue that opened in January with three Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fight cards. Such was the success of the events, UFC returned to the arena on October 30.
Abu Dhabi’s major event credentials have been enhanced further in recent weeks as the city served as one of the hosts of the International Cricket Council’s T20 World Cup. A World Triathlon Championship Series event was also staged on November 5, while Abu Dhabi’s net will be cast even wider next year when the city stages two NBA pre-season games in October – the first such contests in the UAE.
Before then, attention is firmly on the World Swimming Championships (25m) – an event that has been six years in the making after the Covid-19 pandemic forced its postponement by 12 months.
“Abu Dhabi hosting the Fina World Swimming Championships (25m) represents the culmination of a five-year partnership with Fina, stretching back to 2015, when the UAE’S capital staged its first open-water swim,” says Abdulla Alwheibi, the Championships’ tournament director at the Abu Dhabi Sports Council.
“Since then, the UAE has gone on to host a series of FINA World Cup events, which has evidently helped towards raising interest for the aquatics sporting field across local communities, as well as raising Abu Dhabi’s profile across the global aquatics field.”
Alwheibi feels hosting major swimming and aquatics events is a “natural progression” for a destination that sits on the Persian Gulf coast and provides a wide array of open-water and indoor swimming opportunities for locals and visitors alike.
The official logo for next month’s Championships depicts an elite swimmer made out of pearls, powering through the water. The logo is a nod to pearl diving, which was a cornerstone of the UAE’s economy in the late 19th and early 20th century.
“It is representative of both the city’s proud heritage and the competitive nature of the championships,” says Alwheibi.
As Etihad Arena is not primarily an aquatics venue, two swimming pools, measuring 25m x 26m and 25m x 20m, are being shipped from Italy to the UAE via 10 containers. Water will be pumped into the pools over three to four days and it will then take four days to dismantle the facilities following the event.
Alwheibi says the main pool is likely to stay behind in Abu Dhabi following the event, with the Sports Council currently looking at plans to relocate it to a local sports centre where it will serve as an outdoor swimming facility for the community.
“The thrust of our legacy effort will be focused on involving the local community,” he says. “We recently launched multiple swimming programmes offering the local community access to free learn-to-swim classes and swim safety programmes, in partnership with the UAE Swimming Federation and Daman, a leading health insurance specialist in the country.
“We are also working closely with local schools and swimming clubs to ensure hosting this event sparks a passion in youth nationwide – both through providing access to clinics and Q&As with the superstar athletes coming to compete, as well as access to all the Championships action.”
Going forward, the Sports Council will look to maintain aquatic sports’ momentum in the city by hosting local, regional and international swimming events. In October, Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed City pool staged the Arab Swimming Championships, which attracted 174 swimmers from 17 countries.
The Sports Council has set a daily attendance goal of 2,500 during the Championships – a target Alwheibi says they are “tracking well towards”. Interest in the event has been driven by the Sports Council’s extensive outreach programmes involving swimming clubs across the country, with support from the UAE Swimming Federation.
Numerous swimming clubs from across the UAE will attend the event, which will be supported by more than 500 volunteers. The ‘Market Street’, a family-friendly interactive village, will aim to broaden the appeal of the aquatics showpiece.
“Alongside the public interest, commercial interest is very encouraging,” says Alwheibi. “As well as welcoming many of Fina’s international sponsors to the event, we have secured partnerships with multiple leading brands such as Etihad Airways, Miral, Aldar, Daman National Health Insurance, FINIS and Xerox. This will further add to a fantastic week of entertainment for swimming fans, sports fans, corporates and families across the UAE.”
Alwheibi hopes that the event’s legacy impact can be wide-ranging.
Improvements in health and wellness are being targeted, along with building community spirit, driving the discovery of local talent, and enhancing Abu Dhabi’s burgeoning reputation as a world-class destination for sports and aquatics.
“For some time now, Abu Dhabi has been on a clearly articulated journey towards making sport a way of life for our community – something that can be clearly seen from our strategic development of sports in the emirate,” Alwheibi says. “Our effective, emirate-wide sports calendar sees the organisation of regular community events, races and activations, as well as elite world championship events such as this one.
“If we turn to high-performance sport, just look at the multiple athletes who represented the UAE in the Olympic Games, as well as many Olympians who have chosen the UAE as their training base since the last Fina event hosted in the UAE.
“Seeing young Emirati swimmers – like Yousuf Al Matrooshi, who competed at the Tokyo Olympics, and Layla Al Khatib – compete here in December, will be hugely inspiring for the youngsters in the crowd and will engage the community, and hopefully leave a legacy for sport in the region.”