A new wave: building Kazan’s swimming arena

After becoming the first of Russia’s Fifa World Cup stadiums to be completed, opening its doors in 2013 for the city’s Summer Universiade, the Kazan Arena recently played host to another first. For most of July and August its pitch, more familiar with the rigours of Russian Premier League soccer with Rubin Kazan, is currently buried three metres beneath five million litres of water and over 1,700 tonnes of metal scaffold.

A new wave: building Kazan’s swimming arena

After becoming the first of Russia’s Fifa World Cup stadiums to be completed, opening its doors in 2013 for the city’s Summer Universiade, the Kazan Arena recently played host to another first. For most of July and August its pitch, more familiar with the rigours of Russian Premier League soccer with Rubin Kazan, is currently buried three metres beneath five million litres of water and over 1,700 tonnes of metal scaffold.

This was the innovative solution reached by Kazan’s Executive Directorate for Sports Projects upon the awarding of the 16th Fina World Championships to the city. Lacking an existing swimming arena big enough – and unsure of the benefits of building a permanent one, given the six Olympic-sized swimming pools already in use in the city after the Universiade – the organising committee settled on the idea of developing the top-level facilities it already had. Working in collaboration with Myrtha Pools, an official Fina partner, the Executive Directorate has transformed the Kazan Arena into a fully functioning swimming venue, complete with exhibition and practice pools, a tribune and awarding stage, with 11,000 seats – 7,000 of them temporary – and even a roof.

“This is the first time in the history of football stadiums, and in the history of aquatics sports, that we have installed two swimming pools on the pitch,” says Azat Kadyrov, director general for the Executive Directorate. “Not just the pools but a lot of temporary infrastructure – temporary roof, temporary stands, temporary deck, temporary walls. This is a really very unique technical and technological project.”

The stadium’s motto, because of its size and multi-purpose facilities, is ‘the city within the city’; Kadyrov jokes that the current set-up has been nicknamed “the venue within the venue”. The design has certainly saved the organising committee some money when compared with the alternative of constructing a permanent 10,000-seat swimming stadium – the minimum size stipulated by Fina regulations for the world championships – but being a pioneer often means inventing solutions to problems on the fly, as Kadyrov points out. “It was not so easy to make a project to produce all the necessary things,” he says. “We were able to rent many things, but this is the first time this has been done, so many of the elements are unique to this venue.”

“This is the first time in the history of football stadiums, and in the history of aquatics sports, that we have installed two swimming pools on the pitch”

But for the light summer breeze that descends through the open sections of the arena’s roof, once inside you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish the Kazan Arena from any purpose-built swimming stadium. “If you saw what was there four months ago when it was just a soccer pitch, it’s a huge transformation,” says Ranko Tepavcevic, secretary general for the directorate, speaking to SportsPro in the stadium’s press centre on the championships’ opening day.

“The idea was that everything could be in a single cluster, using the amazing facilities that are already present in this football stadium: the sky boxes, this amazing press centre, locker rooms, the conference room, the media centre,” he explains. “So all we had to do was install the pools and benefit from this great venue.”

The Kazan Arena is just one of four venues being utilised for the world championships, with two of the other three also being part of that “cluster” to which Tepavcevic refers. The Aquatics Palace – another part of the Universiade legacy – is hosting the diving while another temporary venue, albeit much smaller than the one inside the Kazan Arena, has been erected for the water polo. Both are adjacent to the soccer stadium, with only the high diving and open-water swimming stage, again a temporary construction, located in the centre of the city, at the confluence of the Kazanka and the Volga rivers, against the dramatic backdrop of the city’s Kremlin.

From the inside, the converted Kazan Arena is hard to distinguish from any other swimming stadium

Cornel Marculescu, executive director of Fina, believes that the championships in Kazan “demonstrate that we can organise our event anywhere”. He mentions the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, where the swimming at next year’s Summer Olympic Games will take place, and several others from Fina’s recent past which involved significant conversion work: the Scandinavium ice hockey arena in Gothenburg, the Oriental Sports Center in Shanghai, Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena. “We cannot do it through the existing [swimming] facilities because they cannot provide for the media, for the television, for the partners, because there is no space,” he explains. “But where we can build, we can go. Constructing this kind of temporary facility is the best that we can do.”

The project has not proved universally popular. Rubin Kazan, the Russian Premier League soccer team and frequent Uefa Europa League entrants who are supposed to be the stadium’s regular tenants, have been unable to play a game there since December 2014 and won’t be allowed to return until March 2016, after a new pitch has been laid. Having moved there at the beginning of the 2014/15 season – already a year later than hoped – Rubin have played a grand total of eight matches at their new ‘home’ stadium.

Though Kadyrov says that his Executive Directorate is “ready to share” the knowledge and experience gained in undertaking this unique project, part of the reason it is unique is due to the difficulties other organising committees would face in persuading soccer clubs to vacate their grounds for an entire season and allowing them to be reconstructed in such a fashion. Because the Kazan Arena was built for the Universiade and the Fifa World Cup with public funds, however, it is still owned and managed by the state. Rubin themselves had little say in the matter of their temporary relocation to their former home at the Central Stadium, but Tepavcevic doesn’t believe that this will pose much of an issue in the long term. “I think that after this remarkable event, [Rubin] will be proud to say, ‘Yes, one month ago we had swimming pools here, now we have Premier League soccer,’” he says.

Another temporary venue was built on the Kazanka River for the long-distance open-water swimming

Kazan itself has been transformed over the last decade by the Russian government’s commitment to funding sporting projects. For the 2013 Summer Universiade its airport was redeveloped, the Kremlin Bridge over the Kazanka River was rebuilt, and a whole new transit system was installed. A total of 36 new sporting venues were constructed specifically for the games, including six Olympic-sized swimming pools, three of which are in use for the Fina World Championships. With these already in use, constructing a seventh, especially one with 10,000 seats surrounding it, was an unnecessary extra expense.

“To build this huge swimming pool with 10,000 seats capacity, it’s not so easy, it’s very expensive,” Kadyrov explains. “For usual life we have enough pools for sports schools, for kids, for citizens, for everybody, and to organise small events. That is why we decided to build this temporary venue."

This article is an extract from a feature entitled ‘Making a splash’ which appears in the September 2015 edition of SportsPro magazine. Subscribe to the magazine today here.