It wasn't the Olympics, an international bake-off, an arts festival, or a battle of the bands. In fact, the fourth World Scholar Athlete Games was all of these and more.
Some 1,900 high schoolers from all 50 states and 155 countries gathered here last week for a nine-day event hosted by the University of Rhode Island (URI) and sponsored by the Institute for International Sport (IIS) and the United Nations. It featured lectures from key thinkers, symposia on global issues, and opportunities to bond over everything from softball to symphony, track to theater.
"The point is to let us know there's more out there," says Mike Niles, 15, of Lincoln, R.I. "It's better than any summer soccer camp. What soccer camp has President [Bill] Clinton come and talk?"
First launched in 1993, the scholar-athlete games grew out of founder Daniel Doyle's travels as a basketball player and coach. Touring Europe and Cuba in the 1960s and '70s, he saw how sports fostered respect and understanding, even among children of different backgrounds.
His idea: Pool talent from around the world in one gym, one studio, one forum – and let fun do the rest.
New England's rainy weather broke Tuesday morning last week, opening up a sunny second day of the games. Hundreds of high school athletes suited up and hustled around URI's campus – their voices shouting in several languages and countless accents as they slugged, hurled, and kicked on the crowded fields.
On the sideline of a soccer game, Justin Woods and Aruna Sesay cheered on teammates, but after awhile, restlessness got the better of them. Justin booted a spare soccer ball into the air, tapped it with his knee, and head-butted the ball over to Aruna.
The two 18-year-olds had never met before, but joked that they had passed one another when Justin moved from Canada to Vietnam and Aruna left Sierra Leone to live with foster parents in Connecticut. "When everyone around you loves the same thing, it is easy to make friends. And we both love football – oh, I mean soccer," said Aruna, laughing after Justin corrected him.
With so many scholar-athletes participating in 23 activities, this year's games outgrew URI's South Kingston campus. Several groups had to pile into buses destined for other sites across Rhode Island.
"We are happy to have them," said Chef Gary Welling, who led the culinary arts group at Johnson and Wales University in Providence. "The mix of backgrounds is fun. It means we all get to try some home recipes from around the world."
Wednesday's cooking challenge: pizza.
The 13 student chefs had free rein of the kitchen. They scattered for ingredients and paired off for the preparation. Most students left the provided cookbooks behind, preferring to experiment.
Like all the scholar-athlete events, the cooking was more about camaraderie than competition. There were taste tests, but no losers, Mr. Welling said.
Grabbing extra Parmesan cheese, Rebecca Trythall laid out the ingredients for her Italian mother's pesto sauce. "Pine nuts, Parmesan, almonds, pepper, olive oil, basil, lots of garlic – we're good," the 18-year-old from Rome said to her partner, Mollie Bedick, 15, of Providence. "Now we just throw 'em all in the mixer."
Rebecca and Mollie giggled as the rumbling mixer spat small bits of pesto into the air.
The admissions process for Mollie and the other Americans felt like filling out a college application, she said, with essays, personal statements, and tuition fees. To increase the number of foreign students, the IIS did some recruiting. Rebecca said the US embassy in Rome sought her out.
Each evening features a guest speaker, including: former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, who discussed abuse of power for the first time since his release from prison on corruption charges; FOX News talk-show host Bill O'Reilly, who spoke about immigration; and world-champion skier Bode Miller, who stressed setting personal goals.
"Take responsibility for defining yourself," Mr. Miller said, in his first public appearance since his disappointing run at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. "There is nothing more worthy of your time and energy than managing your happiness."
This impressive list of guests comes after years of building up the IIS. On this 20th anniversary of the institute, Mr. Doyle looks out on an organization that has spread from Rhode Island to include a Northern Ireland games uniting Catholics and Protestants, a Middle East/Mediterranean Scholar-Athlete Games in Israel, and this year's inaugural Pacific games in Australia.
The institute's success has attracted wealthy sponsors – who helped drop the tuition cost from about $2,500 to $750 – and an A-list board of directors and advisers, including former MasterCard International CEO Russell Hogg, International Olympic Committee Vice President Anita Defrantz, and three current US senators.
After Miller's speech, Brendan Swinarski took his post behind a table of treasures. Not satisfied with simply learning about global issues, Brendan and a group of scholar-athletes had decided to hold a silent auction for international souvenirs. "What started as just a little project to raise money has kind of grown out of control," said the 15-year-old, who came to the games to play the French horn in the symphony. "Everyone here brought little things from home to trade with the people they meet. We're asking them to donate them and put it toward a bigger cause."
The silent auction raised several thousand dollars, selling such eclectic items as a traditional Nigerian milk bowl, decorative plates from Israel, and an Australian Speedo swimsuit. "Most items only go for a few dollars," said Eileen O'Neil-Swinarski, Brendan's mother and a volunteer at the games. "After all, they're using what few spending dollars they have. But, bless their hearts, everyone was willing to donate."
This spirit of giving surprised Senia Abderahman. Born to West Saharan refugees and schooled in Norway, Senia thought she knew what Americas were like. "I assumed Americans were greedy and arrogant, but I've seen none of that here. They have also been even more tolerant of my faith," she said, motioning to her Muslim head scarf. "In Norway they would ask, 'Why on earth would you wear that?' and hurt my feelings. Here they say, 'Can you tell me about it?' "
Senia, 18, could not afford the $750 admission fee, but received a scholarship in Norway honoring her commitment to raising awareness of north African refugees, a topic she discussed at several of the world-scholar workshops.
But she came to the games to play volleyball, she said, and admits she's a little overwhelmed by all the rules. Used to playing with friends in a refugee camp on the Algerian border, she never learned about rotating positions and out-of-bounds.
"I will say, though, the rain has been nice," she said. "We don't get weather like this too often back home."
In 2008, the world games will move from URI to the University of Queensland, Australia, where organizers hope to bring together participants from more than 160 nations.