Take a trip back through 60 years of Universiade history. The 17th stop on the FISU history tour takes us to the Bulgarian capital city for the Sofia 1977 Summer Universiade
The towering Alberto Juantorena – affectionately nicknamed El Caballo and El Elegante de las Pistas – en route to his world record setting performance of 1:43.44 in the 800m at the Sofia 1977 Summer Universiade
The Summer Universiade returned to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia in 1977, when the Games made a resounding comeback after having to scale back two years earlier in Rome.
The ninth Summer Universiade in Sofia – which also hosted the second edition of the World University Games in 1961, when the Universiade featured less than half the number of athletes – was a slam dunk of success as a record of almost 4,400 participants from 78 countries competed across 101 events in 10 sports, helping restore the stature of the Games as a major international affair in a year when China, at last, became a member nation of the FISU after years of discord.
The performances from the athletes in Sofia were nothing short of spectacular, highlighted by world records set by a pair of Cuban track stars in Alberto Juantorena – the only athlete in history to win both the 400-meter and 800m Olympic titles – and Alejandro Casanas in the 800m and 110m hurdles, respectively.
In athletics and swimming, a combined 38 university records were rewritten, and some of those like Juantorena and Casanas who won gold medals at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal built on their success, proving their showing in Canada was no flash in the pan.
Hungarian women’s fencer Ildiko Schwartzenberger, Japanese male gymnast Hiroshi Kajiyama and wrestler Roman Dmitriev of the Soviet Union were among the Montreal podium toppers, as well as a certain American hoopster by the name of Larry Bird, who would go on to build a remarkable hall of fame career in the National Basketball Association with the Boston Celtics.
The parade of nations during the opening ceremonies of the Sofia 1977 Summer Universiade
Bird was not the only American basketball player to appear at the Universiade prior to NBA and global superstardom. Fellow Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Karl Malone took part in the 1983 Universiade in Edmonton, Canada, finishing second in a final against the home nation that is still considered one of the greatest upsets in the history of sport.
The robust competition in Sofia set the tables for the 10th Summer Universiade in 1979 in Mexico City, where the Games would travel to the North American continent for the first time, expanding its reach even further around the globe.