Prioritising the experience: The NEOM Beach Games’ athlete-first model

NEOM Sport committed to providing a unique, world-class experience for athletes and their entourage at the recent NEOM Beach Games in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

Quarterfinal 4 match between Hangzhou and Kandava Turiba in the NEOM FIBA 3x3 Challenger at the NEOM Beach Games 2023 (Photo by Joern Pollex/Getty Images for NEOM Beach Games 2023)
Quarterfinal 4 match between Hangzhou and Kandava Turiba in the NEOM FIBA 3x3 Challenger at the NEOM Beach Games 2023 (Photo by Joern Pollex/Getty Images for NEOM Beach Games 2023)

In an industry awash with competitions, providing a truly memorable athlete experience can be a key differentiator for an event that is looking to gain a foothold in the busy international calendar. 

Indeed, by endeavouring to meet such a challenge, NEOM Beach Games organisers are hoping to create a positive domino effect. After all, happy athletes are more likely to perform to their potential and return to an event they have enjoyed in future years. Meanwhile, attracting sport’s top stars year after year creates a buzz that will reverberate with spectators and viewers, as well as media and commercial partners alike. 

In this respect, feedback from the competitors themselves would suggest that organisers have passed the athlete experience test with flying colours at the recently concluded 2023 edition of the Games. 

More than 800 athletes and staff members participated in the second edition of the major sports event, which wrapped up on November 24 after just over a month of sporting action dotted across northwestern Saudi Arabia’s stunning landscape, NEOM.  

“We aim to stay at the forefront of sports technology and remain committed to excellence, creating a unique and unrivalled sports experience for athletes, their entourage and spectators alike,” said NEOM Sport Managing Director Jan Paterson. 

“Our focus is on ensuring a high-quality event, built around the overall athlete experience, enabling them to perform at the highest level. We also want the athletes to come and enjoy competing in NEOM and experience what our region, with its outstanding natural beauty, has to offer.” 

Diverse sports landscape 

One natural attribute for NEOM is the remarkable variety of its landscape, which comprises a long coastline, vivid desert valleys and mountainous terrains, all of which offer prime backdrops for top-level sports action. 

For instance, sport climbing featured for the first time at the Games this year with specially made walls situated against the mountains in the background, giving those participating in and following the action an opportunity to enjoy the landscape, as well as the competition. 

“I loved the experience,” said Swiss climber Petra Klingler, a bouldering world champion from 2016, who described her experience of the NEOM Beach Games as “incredible”. 

She added: “The people were so welcoming and the food was great. Getting out of the accommodation each morning was mind-blowing with the mountains around us, and it was nice to have the time together with all the athletes.” 

French climber Mejdi Schalck, who won the men’s bouldering gold medal at the Games in the sport climbing competition, echoed these thoughts by describing the setting, venue and experience as “perfect”. 

Temporary arena 

Complementing the scenery were new, state-of-the-art structures. In the 3X3 basketball competition, for example, an international-standard temporary arena was constructed to host the tournament. 

The arena became a hub for a party atmosphere at Gayal Beach, which welcomed 16 men’s teams and four women’s teams for the FIBA Challenger event.  

“It’s amazing… honestly inspiring,” said women’s Saudi Arabian 3X3 basketball player Yusra Abuljadayel. “I really hope we have this tournament more often to be able to get this experience and learn. Women’s sports in Saudi Arabia are evolving and hopefully we can inspire the next generation to come and perform on the biggest stage.” 

This year’s edition of the Games was attended by athletes from around the globe. However, the unique platform afforded to Saudi Arabian athletes gave them an outstanding opportunity to give home fans plenty to get excited about.  

For example, homegrown starlet Moroj Adil, Saudi Arabia’s first female UCI (International Cycling Union) WorldTour cyclist, was a star attraction in the women’s mountain bike race. 

“Honestly, it was an exceptional experience which should not be missed,” she said. “My feelings defy words.” 

Inspiring consensus 

The consensus among athletes was that the organisers had strived to create an inspiring competition environment that enabled participants to focus on showcasing their talents. This, in turn, will inspire others in the years to come. 

For instance, the NEOM TITAN Desert Saudi Arabia, said to be one of the most demanding mountain bike challenges in the world, saw Cuban para-athlete Lester Fernandez take part in a four-day event covering 355 kilometres in total. 

“[I’m] so happy, because this moment for me is special,” Fernandez said. “I’m thinking that one day, in my prayers, I can help disabled people to get out of the house and be more happy. It was the moment to say to the world, ‘we can do whatever we want’.” 

More rave reviews were given to facilities and event organisation across the Games’ other sports. 

In the NEOM Beach Soccer Cup, Japan national team defender Ozu Moreira praised how organisers had set a new benchmark in terms of the experience in a sport that has grown considerably in popularity worldwide in recent years. 

“The location and the preparations were amazing this year,” he said. “It is one step level up for us.” 

Germany national team men’s captain Oliver Romrig added at the tournament: “For us, it’s a great experience, and I’m very happy that my team and I have been able to play here in this great venue and I hope it’s not the last time. The hospitality is great and I am really happy about everything.” 

Exceeding expectations 

A recurring theme from the athletes was the quality of cuisine available – as highlighted by the likes of men’s NEOM Titan Desert Saudi Arabia race winner Enrique Morcillo of Spain. 

However, it was the overall experience – particularly around the athletes’ village, which gave participants an opportunity to mingle with other competitors – that will live long in the memory. 

“I think the level of organisation was beyond what we usually experience,” Canadian sport climber Michael Finn-Henry commented. “The village was fun for the athletes, to bring us all together, compared to how we usually all stay in hotels. Everyone really enjoyed the event.” 

Arguably, though, the biggest impact will be on the homegrown athletes – and the growing momentum behind the development of sporting excellence in the kingdom. 

Summing up the sentiment, Saudi Arabian cyclist Waleed Al Kuwaiz admitted: “Despite being Saudi myself, there were a lot of things I hadn’t seen until I had been here. So, I think that my participation in this race will have inspired some of my Saudi compatriots and others to participate.”