A week and its legacy
Author(s): Bob Kerr
Copyright holder(s): Bob Kerr: With thanks to The New Shetlander magazine
The thing I will remember most from the 2005 NatWest Island Games was the unity of the Shetland community. For one week, and just one week, almost all other recurring news topics and local frustrations were put to one side and thousands of local folk all got behind the Games. Everyone was so upbeat, and so many people were focused on either supporting the local team, or helping with the running of the event. After all the build-up, plenty of folk were at least curious to see what it was all about.
Houses and cars were flying flags, tracksuits were everywhere, bairns were collecting and swapping pin badges (the unofficial currency of the Games) and the atmosphere and buzz at the sports venues was truly uplifting. The standard of sport on show was breathtaking and even those who had no previous interest in sport were left impressed and even awe-struck at the talent on show.
Whatever your involvement in sport, the Games were surely an inclusive event. The 250-strong Shetland team had some of the youngest and oldest competitors at the Games, aged from 12 to 74, and the sports events took place all over Shetland, from Aith to Whalsay and from Unst to Boddam. With fifteen sports on offer, there was always something to see - the only difficulty was knowing which ones to fit in so that you didn't miss an important match, final or medal ceremony.
Talking of finals, matches and medals, the fairytale ending was of course the men's football final between Shetland and Guernsey. The numbers escalate every time it is mentioned, but I think the closest estimate was a crowd of around 6000 spectators. The radio coverage, a joint BBC Radio Shetland and BBC Radio Guernsey production, was superb. And, of course, for anyone who heard it, the 'Gilbertson roar' that followed each of the two Shetland goals was unforgettable.
There has been nothing but praise for the whole event. Several people have since commented to me that before the Games, they were either not into sport, or were at best, indifferent, at worst, totally against the whole proposal. They were, however, converted by the whole Games experience. New and welcome converts to the emotional world of sport. There can be few opportunities to so positively affect the mood of a whole community as a major sports event. Although hard to quantify, this is indeed part of the justification for any town, city or country to bid to host a major cultural showcase. Speak to the people of Manchester just after the 2002 Commonwealth Games and I am sure that they too would agree that it was worthwhile. Once all the joys of wrestling over funding and planning the legacy are overcome, the people of London will no doubt also have their hats tipped at a jaunty angle after the 2012 Olympics.
Working on the project
It has been a fascinating experience to have been a member of a small group of people who have worked on the project since the end of 1999, just after the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race. As the Games drew ever closer, more and more people began to realise the scale of the event. The staff of the Games Office in Fox Lane and members of the Organising Committee were at the hub of the preparations and their commitment to the Games is obviously without question. There were also so many individuals involved during the last few weeks - hundreds of volunteers and staff from public agencies and private businesses across Shetland. In the end, around 1500 people demonstrated their ability to work together on a single overarching task - making the Games a success for Shetland.
Every aspect of the Games - accommodation, transport, sports, catering, medals, accreditation, media provision, to name only a few - brought together clusters of people, who might never otherwise have worked together, to tackle specific tasks. There are lots of analogies: cogs in a machine being the obvious one. And overall it worked, very well. There have been numerous comments from visiting teams and competitors with experience of other Games that Shetland was one of the best, if not the best Games that they have enjoyed. The follow-up letters of praise in the Shetland Times, from locals and visitors, for a month after the Games is almost unprecedented and is testament to their impact.
In working closely with the sports groups from outset, I had some private concerns about our capacity to deliver the Games. Shetland is the smallest island ever to host to the event and it was always going to be a major test for everyone involved. The last three islands to host the event - Gotland, the Isle of Man and Guernsey - all have about three times our population and obviously had more community resources (pairs of hands, that is) to draw on.
There were two ambitions: to host the event successfully and to achieve as many medals for Shetland as possible. My preference, if we had to prioritise, was always for the former, as we would have to be clearly seen to deliver a well-run event for all the visitors. It would have been a hollow victory if we had a clutch of medals but some or all of the organisation was a shambles. There was obviously also a desire to achieve as much success on the field as we possibly could; the home team should always do well in the medal table. Our sports community was going to be stretched to achieve these two joint ambitions.
In the end, it was more than anyone could have hoped for. Not only did we as a community, by all accounts, deliver a hugely successful Games, but the home team shone throughout the week, with a total of 46 medals, almost three times more than the Shetland team has had in any previous Games. Our sports team played their hearts out and the crowds turned out in their thousands. It was a week in Shetland that will be never forgotten.
So what next? What life is there after the Games? For some sportsmen and women, it may have been the final flourish of their career. For others, indeed many more I hope, it will just be the beginning. The 2005 Shetland Island Games Team, with 220 competitors, was our largest ever, swollen by the inclusion of our squash and women's football teams for the first time, and our volleyball and bowls teams, who haven't been at the Games for some years. All of these sports had a incredible week and all are keen to press on to be higher, faster and stronger in the future.
Planning for 'Rhodes 2007' has begun already and I hear mutterings of a 'Supporters Club', which would be a new and exciting development - Shetland has never had a 'Tartan Army' (or should that be 'Fair Isle Fans'?). I hope we do attract a few followers to future Games and it would undoubtedly have a positive effect on the Shetland team's chances. Although I'm not sure how many devoted Fair Isle ganzies will be seen in the heat of a Rhodes summer.
Shetland this summer demonstrated a clear passion for sport. It humbles me greatly to be a sports development officer in an island where sport is so clearly supported and already well 'developed'. The two most used words in the months and years before the Games were 'catalyst' and 'legacy'. There have been some amazing outcomes. Who could have predicted how many people would watch and enjoy the Games and what an upsurge of interest in sport there has been.
As Council Convenor Sandy Cluness stated during the week of the Games 'It is a great demonstration of the strength of our community spirit that we have the capacity to host this major international event here.' I hope that we can look forward to more sports events here in the future and these will also have sports, tourism and economic benefits.
The exposure that Shetland received in the Scottish media during the Games week was significant: national coverage on radio, television and in the newspapers. The combined efforts of staff from SportScotland, EventScotland, Scottish Media Group and the Council's computer teams, provided news, results and updates to all the waiting media. My only personal feeling was that there weren't perhaps as many media waiting for us as there might have been, at least at the start of the week. It seemed to take a few days for certain sections of the Scottish media to realise that there were around 2000 international athletes in Shetland, but then again I am surely not the first person to comment on a Central Belt bias.
We have international standard sports facilities for a range of sports and I sense a willingness for more events here. We have regular and well-supported competitions with Orkney and a recent trend towards links with Faroe and Bergen. However, we don't host many regular sports events that attract a large off-island audience, two exceptions perhaps being the very successful annual Mid-Summer Rugby Sevens, and the the North of Scotland fencing event every three years.
In recent years Shetland has hosted some excellent one-off events such as the 2003 Northlink Fireball Dinghy Championships - a hugely successful sailing event, with almost fifty crews from across Europe and rave reviews all around. This event was initiated and organised entirely by members of Shetland Fireball Dinghy Association and Lerwick Boating Club, who made the event happen, to their undeniable credit, and firmly put Shetland on the sailing map (or should that be chart?).
Without meaning to pick on any one Games sport, I must say that there was a huge level of interest in the cycling programme of the Games. Shetland's roads and hills have never seen packs of cyclists (and their entourage) like it and all five events drew sizeable crowds. What enthused me were the apparent comments from visiting cyclists on the quality of our roads: they were impressed how well they are surfaced, how little traffic congestion there is, and admittedly, in some places, how straight they are. It is perhaps a legacy that no-one may have predicted: the Auld Rock as a venue for international cycle events. It may take some work, but will we one day see the 'Tour de Shetland' on the sports news?
Adverts of success
Joking aside, a concerted effort to attract more community-led sports events here would not only re-affirm our sense of community spirit and provide a real focus for our sports groups, but also, in economic terms, promote Shetland to a wide audience and bring tourists to Shetland. The weak link, as we can all see, is the cost of travel, and let's not forget, at times there can be a shortage of beds too. Of course there are core responsibilities for any community - local economy, health care, education, transport. I would never suggest that sport is any more important that these. But if we have such a successful and vibrant place to live, with a smart and progressive outlook, then why not let sports and cultural groups be the adverts of success? It is a grand comparison to make, but Australia has been doing it for years, and China is now following suit.
Sponsorship of Shetland sports groups is to be welcomed. Our sportsmen and women have gone forth to the Scottish mainland as ambassadors for our community over many years. I have my hopes pinned on the PSO option for flights: Public Sports Opportunities. If we can also attract competition - and by that I mean competitors - to Shetland, with the right package of sports events, I am sure we will see greater benefits than losses.
Cheaper travel opportunities will also see more of our sports groups and individuals taking part on the mainland. They are a great advert for Shetland. I recall that when Shetland's Sportshall Athletics Team dominated an event in Aberdeen in 2002, the Lady Provost of Aberdeen, Margaret Smith, who is herself a PE teacher by training, asked me 'You've done it again. How do you do it?' To use a sporting metaphor, Shetland punches well above its weight in many fields, and hosting and competing in the 2005 NatWest Island Games was an outstanding example of our expertise in sport.
Of course we have also have a proud and thriving music scene - indeed an industry - and Shetland plays host to many successful music and arts events throughout the year. We have all enjoyed the emotions of music, literature, dance and other performing and visual arts. As we have seen with the Games, sport too is emotional, but in a different way. Sport unifies through competition - spectators share the experience of success or defeat. Shetland was indisputably united during the Games. It was a great feeling. Let's not wait too long before we all feel like that again.
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A week and its legacy. 2022. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved September 2022, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1403.
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