The 2016 Summer Olympics, to be hosted by Brazil, are still five years away. But in Rio de Janeiro, and all around Brazil this July, the air will be filled with Olympic enthusiasm as competitions begin for the 5th Military World Games.
Sponsored by the Brussels-based International Military Sports Council (CISM in French), the July 16-24 event is expected to attract nearly 6,000 athletes from more than 100 countries competing in 26 sports. Previous CISM gatherings have taken place in Rome, Italy (1995); Zagreb, Croatia (1999); Catania, Italy (2003) and Hyderabad, India (2007).
It’s no accident that these games occur every four years, always falling one year before the Summer Olympics, since the event serves as sort of rehearsal for the Olympics themselves. Many athletes standing atop the podium in Rio this summer will certainly shine at the 2012 Olympics in London. In fact, during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, nearly a third of the athletes competing were members of the military.
“Countries from Asia to Europe follow the same model of preparation for the Olympics with military teams. That is why we expect such high-level competition,” explained Brazil’s Col. Roberto Itamar Cardoso Plum, social outreach and marketing coordinator for the Military Games and member of the competition’s planning committee.
The following 15 Olympic sports will also be featured at the Military World Games: track and field, boxing, basketball, fencing, soccer, equestrian sports, sailing, judo, swimming, modern pentathlon, taekwondo, shooting, triathlon, volleyball and beach volleyball. The other five competitions are military in nature: parachuting, military pentathlon, naval pentathlon, air force pentathlon and guidance.
During the Beijing Olympics, 755 athletes and coaches were from the military; this excludes Chinese participants, since China refused to provide background information on its athletes. Some champions in uniform, like French swimmer Alain Bernard, rose to the top. Bernard won the gold in the 100-meter freestyle, and the bronze in the 50-meter freestyle.
Another military champion who did well in Beijing was Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva. A sergeant in the Russian armed forces, she was promoted to captain after winning Olympic gold again in Beijing, just as she had done four years earlier in Greece.
Until she resigned — which rendered her ineligible to compete — Isinbayeva also was expected to do well at the military games in Rio. It’s too early to say who will shine at the next Military Games, since selections are still under way. However, several big names are expected to represent the armed forces of their countries at the games.
One competition likely to involve lots of Olympic medalists is judo, a sport in which soldiers often excel. Mark Huizinga, captain of the Dutch team, won the gold medal in judo at the Sydney games in 2000, and bronze medals in Atlanta (1996) and Athens (2004). Similarly, Greek officer Ilias Iliadis won a gold medal in judo at the Athens games.
The Brazilian team, which boasts many world judo champions, is likely to rack up lots of medals this summer in Rio. The biggest star is 28-year-old Sgt. Tiago Camilo, a two-time Olympic medalist. Camilo won the silver in Sydney, in the 73-kg weight class, and a bronze in Beijing for the 81-kg weight class. In London, he’ll shoot for an unprecedented third Olympic medal in yet a third class: 90 kg.
Camilo underscored the importance of the military games as more than a mere test run for the London games.
“The spirit is the same, but the excitement of representing Brazil in such a special way, through the armed forces, creates an enormous sense of patriotism”, he said. “Of course at the Olympics and in the World Games, we represent our country, but the Military World Games are more intense.”
In addition to Tiago Camilo, the Brazilian judo team at the military games could be represented by other Olympic medalists such as Flávio Canto, a bronze medalist in Athens; Leandro Guilheiro, who took bronze in Athens and in Beijing, and Ketleyn Quadros, a bronze winner in Beijing. Another Brazilian star is sprinter Vicente Lenílson, a silver medalist in the 4 x 100-meter relay in Sydney. Many other athletes who came out on top at the Pan American and World games in their respective sports will form part of the Brazilian team.
Several other countries are expected to bring strong teams to the first military sports competition ever to be held in the Americas, among them China, Russia, Italy, Germany and South Korea. With that in mind, host country Brazil is pulling out all the stops and guaranteeing entrance into the military for 72 of its most elite athletes.
The event will serve as a test for Rio, which is also hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.
“It’s the largest multisport event to be hosted by Brazil in 2011 and will kick off a decade of top-rated sporting events in Brazil and in Rio de Janeiro,” said Col. Cardoso. “We will gain experience in logistics, infrastructure and specialized personnel. These are experiences that began in 2007, with the Pan-American Games. Our challenge is to finish among the top three countries, which will be very difficult. But we are strong in sports like judo, beach volleyball, soccer, taekwondo and shooting.”
The Brazilian model of enlisting athletic champions into the armed forces is commonplace in Europe. In France, for example, 90 slots in the military are reserved for high-performance athletes. In Brazil, where financial incentives haven’t reached European levels, becoming a member of the military is an enticing option for top athletes.
“The military has a retention project for after the World Military Games. We are hoping that every athlete on the team will be interested in continuing with the military,” Camilo said. After passing a series of selective exams, candidates will receive a monthly wage of R$2,500 (US$1,560) to defray costs.
Camilo said being in the military is “grueling” yet rewarding. “We were in Rio for almost a month, training for camp and marching. I learned to shoot and assemble rifles,” said the judoka. “It was an experience that enriched my life.”
The 5th Military World Games could also leave a legacy of infrastructure to be used in the 2016 Olympics. At least 15 sporting categories will require use of arenas recently upgraded facilities that were originally built for the 2007 Pan-American Games. Other facilities are under construction and this will contribute to the games in 2016.