How the NEOM Beach Games is creating a ‘unique opportunity’ for new legacies

The NEOM Beach Games 2023 represents the next step in Saudi Arabia’s bold event-hosting ambitions, as NEOM Sport Managing Director Jan Paterson explains.

Neom Beach Games 2022, Super League Triathlon.
Neom Beach Games 2022, Super League Triathlon.

The second edition of the annual event will take place from October 21 to November 24, with more than 800 athletes and staff members from around the world set to compete across the five sports of triathlon, beach soccer, 3×3 basketball, mountain bike racing and sport climbing.

The programme is built on innovative sporting formats with a splash of adventure. This tallies with the bold ambition of a destination branding exercise that will ultimately aim to elevate sporting reputations in the Kingdom to unprecedented heights.

Global hub

Once again, the focal point for the Games will be NEOM, the $500bn mega-development that is sprouting up in northwestern Saudi Arabia with the goal of acting as a long-term economic engine for the Kingdom.

As part of this, NEOM’s stated aim is to become ‘an innovative hub for sport’ – although as NEOM Sport Managing Director Jan Paterson readily acknowledges: “This isn’t a sprint to achieve this goal; it’s a marathon.”

However, whilst some may cite a relative lack of major event-hosting experience for a country of its size as a drawback in Saudi Arabia’s long-term plans, Paterson sees the opposite.

“We are very fortunate in that in NEOM we have a unique opportunity – we have no legacy,” she says. “We have the chance to develop on lessons learned globally and to co-create an ecosystem that leverages the power of sport in a new region, enabling development and growth, encouraging physical wellness and active lifestyles, and inspiring the next generation of sportswomen and men across Saudi Arabia.”

New legacies

Organisers believe that the NEOM Beach Games represent an ideal opportunity to create new legacies for NEOM and Saudi Arabia from something of a blank canvas. Crucial to this will be the ongoing process to strengthen ties within the global sports movement.

On this point, organisers have forged close working relationships with the likes of Super League Triathlon, Beach Soccer Worldwide, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), Titan World Series and the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) in an effort to optimise the athlete experience and ultimately become a “natural home for global sports events”, according to Paterson.

As part of this evolution, NEOM Beach Games will see the inclusion of sport climbing, which will be one of four new Olympic sports at the Paris 2024 Games.

“Hosting the NEOM Beach Games delivers on NEOM’s vision to collaborate with international federations and teams, which engages larger global audience and welcomes world-class elite athletes, growing our region’s involvement in dynamic and adventure sports,” Paterson says.

“We will continue to grow in scale and diversify, as we have for 2023, delivering five world-class sporting events, including the addition of NEOM IFSC Masters, and account for sports which are growing in popularity here in the Kingdom. In addition, we are focused on legacy and as part of each of the events, we are hosting an activation with the national federation to foster participation and develop talent across all five sports.”

Key pillar

Paterson outlines an umbrella goal of “building a high-performance culture and inspiring the next generation of athletes across the region”. However, there are broader potential implications.

NEOM project leaders have earmarked sport as a ‘key pillar of liveability in NEOM by acting as ‘a positive tool for social development, economic growth, inclusion, innovation, health and wellbeing, tourism and much more’.

Paterson explains: “By leveraging the power of sport, new regions such as NEOM can contribute to the growth and economic prosperity of the sports and tourism sectors, offering new opportunities to inhabitants and visitors. Overall, these events are crucial stepping stones in realising NEOM’s ambition and support of national objectives.”

It is well documented that Saudi Arabia’s long-term objectives include economic diversification, but in a sporting context, the Beach Games will strengthen NEOM’s foundations for a varied sporting portfolio in the years to come.

Paterson, who was previously CEO of the British Olympic Foundation, the charitable arm of the British Olympic Association, as well as Deputy Chef de Mission for Team GB in 2012 and Team England’s Chef de Mission at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, highlights the desire to attract a diverse range of events. These will “showcase NEOM’s dynamic landscape, offering a unique field of play in a very natural environment for performance”, she says.

Memorable setting

With this in mind, the setting for competitive sports certainly promises to be memorable.

To date, NEOM has announced Leyja, its sustainable tourism destination, as well as four flagship regions, including; Sindalah, its luxury island; THE LINE, a cognitive linear city that represents the future of urban living; Trojena, its year-round mountain destination and the first outdoor ski experience in the GCC region; and Oxagon, the reimagined industrial city and home to advanced and clean industries in NEOM.

Whilst facilities across the different regions remain under construction – and the first region will not open up fully until 2024 – the NEOM Beach Games, which will be streamed globally, are designed to give viewers a tantalising glimpse of the stunning NEOM landscape, of which 95% is a nature reserve.

The NEOM Beach Games are designed to leverage the qualities of this landscape. The event will commence with the Super League Triathlon set on the untouched beach of Seham Bay, in the historic Gulf of Aqaba, showcasing NEOM’s marine landscape. Both the Beach Soccer Cup and the FIBA 3×3 Challenger 2023 will be held at The Beach Games Hub further east on the Gayal Peninsular, while Titan Desert Saudi Arabia mountain biking will take place at the Mountain Village. The Games will close with the IFSC Masters at Hisma Desert

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

Bespoke experiences

Saudi Arabia’s high-profile sporting ambitions have been underlined this year by the arrival of superstar footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo and confirmation that the Kingdom will bid to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup.

However, the NEOM Beach Games are an example of how the Kingdom is not just focusing on superstar household names to enhance its global standing in sport.

“Our aspirations range from creating bespoke grassroots sports experiences through to a high-performance ecosystem, hosting major events to creating global partnerships all within a flexible, tech enhanced infrastructure,” Paterson adds. “Hosting the NEOM Beach Games aligns with NEOM’s vision to become a unique host destination for high performance athletes competing against the stunning backdrop of our region.”