Vladimir Burdun: turning sporting dreams into reality in the UAE

DUBAI: Few people have seen – or contributed to – the growth of Dubai’s sport over the past decades like Vladimir Burdun.

The 52-year-old Serbian moved to the UAE in 1995, when the Dubai Rugby Sevens was still played on sand, the Dubai Tennis Championships were two years old and the first Dubai World Cup was still a year away.

Today, he is the founder and CEO of Emirates Sports, which oversees a sports promotion company and hotel, and the president of the World Strongman Federation.

Burdun, a karate competitor in his youth, is steeped in combat sports and is also the development director of the Serbian Boxing Association.

He moved to Dubai when a group of friends started a trading company in the city and needed an English translator. He took the opportunity.

“They wanted to sell marble, so I came to the UAE and found my first local partner. His name was Mohammad Galadari, Burdun said. “The other businesses were a marble company and a Russian restaurant.

“It was 1995. Only brands like Pizza Hut and other big names were here. But you couldn’t find a suitable meal with entertainment, so we started. Our group still owns a few restaurants.

“But it’s one of my hated businesses,” Burdun said with a laugh about his time running the restaurant.

His true passion was sports and he soon became immersed in an industry that was about to explode in the UAE.

“I’ve been an athlete my whole life,” he said. “Even when I was only dealing with the other businesses, there was always an opportunity to play sports. I am a martial arts pioneer in the Middle East. I was the first to bring martial arts here. Thai boxing, kickboxing professional competitions. I was the first to organize professional MMA or boxing events in the UAE. And we did in the early 2000s.”

In 2003, Burdun opened its first martial arts academy and by 2011 had 18 clubs across the city.

He also collaborated with David Skidmore, the founder of Dubai Rugby Sevens, and then they founded white-collar boxing at Transguard Group.

After the establishment of the Dubai Sports Council in 2005, the number of sporting activities and competitions has mushroomed, and Burdun highlights that more than 1,170 official events took place last year alone.

As president of the World Strongman Federation, he organized the brand’s first event in the United Arab Emirates in 2016.

“We want to grow (Strongman) and we want it to be an Olympic sport in the future.”

Burdun sits in an apartment at the Emirates Sports Hotel in Dubai Sports City, which is home to five professional football clubs from the UAE’s second division and a number of visiting athletes. A new ice rink is being built a short walk away, another sign of hockey in the country.

The biggest boom in the business took place after the epidemic, he said.

“People understood that living a healthy life gave them a chance to fight different types of diseases.”

According to Burdun, the accessibility of fitness facilities is extremely important.

“(Almost) every building here has a gym,” he said. “Professional gyms are run by professional people. I think the number of coaches working here is one of the highest in the world compared to the number of people living in the city. I would say that the UAE is a very, very healthy destination.”

Today, much of Burden’s attention is devoted to hockey, a sport he has been involved in since 2010.

“I wanted snow, I wanted winter,” he said. “You miss home.”

However, he points out that the UAE’s first ice hockey team was incredibly formed in 1994 at Al-Nasr Leisureland.

“A group of North American pilots working for Emirates wanted to ice skate, so they formed the first ice hockey team. Well, if you look at the city of Dubai, we have four ice rinks.

“We are building the fifth one. Imagine this is the middle of the desert and we have five ice rinks in one city.”

The Emirates Hockey League was founded in 2009 by the UAE Winter Sports Federation and the Emirates Olympic Committee and is governed by the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Burdun said hockey requires logistics.

“A match requires at least two teams and two teams must have at least 10 players. We need an ice arena, changing rooms, a lot of equipment. It is one of the most complicated sports, but when people start to love it, you start to love it with all your heart,” he said.

“We believe hockey has a bright future in the Middle East. Because you know the UAE has won three World Cups in the last three years in different divisions. This is incredible growth for a country in the middle of a desert.

“We have strong cooperation with different nationalities,” he said. “Can you believe we have Canadians, North Americans, Swedes, Finns, Danes, Slovaks, Croatians, Russians? We have a lot of stakeholders of different nationalities.”

Burdun is particularly keen to develop hockey, including in the Middle East region, particularly Saudi Arabia, where he first visited in 2009.

“We recently went to the World Combat Games in Riyadh and I can tell you that I was completely shocked by the changes in Saudi,” he said. “We were watching the 48kg final, a world final, and a Saudi girl was fighting a Bahraini girl. This was a shock to me. In just 15 years, the girls from the (Gulf) countries are now fighting like tigers and have eliminated all their European rivals and are fighting for medals. They were really good fighters. The world is changing.

“We want to expand in the Middle East,” he added. “At our company, we cover the entire infrastructure, from A to Z. From hotel apartments, meals, special treatment, medical preparation of athletes, unique equipment, our own ice rink. Now we are ready to do something for the Middle East. Maybe a GCC hockey championship. Our company can afford to build arenas anywhere. I have a dream to build an arena in NEOM. I know how to do it, how to build a team there and how to attract the best talent in the world.”

Referring to the 2029 Asian Winter Games to be held in Saudi Arabia’s Tabuk region, he said: “Those coming to NEOM will enjoy being there.”

Burdun considers himself lucky to live in a region that encourages development, calling European countries “turtles” in comparison.

“Instead of trying to put up obstacles, they actually help get things done. The good thing about the UAE is that it’s a very new country, not everything is set up like in Europe,” he said, highlighting the government’s support in getting things off the ground.

“This is how we want to do things in Dubai. We don’t want to wait 50 years for the association to grow. We want to make it yesterday. We want to achieve results tomorrow. We want our players here now. And that’s what we do.”

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