The isles’ bi-annual friendly games is the perfect opportunity to promote the benefits of participation to outlying communities, writes Tavish Scott
Last week Jersey hosted the NatWest Island Games. Athletes from as far afield as Greenland, Bermuda and the Falklands competed on the football field, the swimming pool and the shooting range. The bi-annual event is a celebration of island competitiveness and camaraderie. It is the friendly games.
Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles participate, and they aim high on the medals table – with the objective being to get close to the sporting powerhouses of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. The Western Isles and Shetland were very evenly matched on the podium, with Shetland’s Commonwealth Games swimmer Andrea Strachan the Northern Isles’ outstanding athlete with four golds in the pool. Meanwhile, the Western Isles have become highly proficient in mountain biking, to the extent that I will look afresh at the topography of Harris and Lewis on my next visit. Orkney were a little way behind in medals won, but are now bidding to host the Games in the next decade.
This is not some sordid Fifa-style exercise. Brown envelopes stuffed with money and £10 million bank transfers are not necessary for an island to bring the Games home. But Islands must have the facilities for the 14 separate sports that constitute the games and crucially, accommodation for up to 4,000 athletes and more than 1,000 visitors, friends and family who take a weeks holiday to follow their islands. That is a big challenge. Shetland alone had more than 100 mums and dads, supporters and fans in a travelling exodus from one end of the UK to the other.
The competition and standard is high, and the Jersey games featured Olympic and Commonwealth athletes. Many who took part last week will be on the sports TV channels later this year, such as the Games men’s shot put champion, Zane Duquemin from Jersey, who is ranked No 1 in the UK. Mark Cavendish, currently in the Tour de France, started his international competition at an Island Games. So this is more than islanders meeting for a sporting party.
The Commonwealth Games cost Scotland more than £400 million, with over 3,000 athletes taking part from across the globe. The NatWest Games cost less than £2m to host yet more people participate. To their great credit, the chair and chief executive of Sportscotland were in Jersey. Rhona Martin and Stuart Harris wanted to see what all the talk was about having been lobbied by Team Shetland, and they left suitably enthralled. That bodes well for Orkney, who will need an investment in sporting infrastructure to win the Games. Shetland built the necessary shorting range and other facilities for the Games held in 2005, which were opened by then first minister Jack McConnell. Orkney should have the Games, and the Scottish Government should support that.
There was a huge amount of hype around the legacy of Glasgow 2014. So what is happening to sporting participation levels? Are the islands’ best athletes getting a chance to compete on a national stage? Why has the Scottish government cut funding for swimming across Scotland? Why is swimming not on the curriculum?
Shetland sport has been pressing for a fair deal on transport costs. A level playing field would mean that island sports men and women would pay the same travel costs as those on the Scottish mainland. But travelling from the Northern and Western Isles is expensive, means at least one night away from home, and for younger athletes, a parent or carer comes along too. The Scottish sports minister knows the arguments and is sympathetic. That sentiment needs to turn into action in the shape of an islands travel fund to help island athletes compete. At the moment many are both geographically and financially disadvantaged. When the Lib-Lab coalition government introduced the air discount scheme, it helped all islanders with the exorbitant cost of air travel to and from the mainland. The current administration should now introduce a specific scheme to help athletes.
Some would ask why athletes should receive this support, and why not other equally deserving groups in island communities? For one simple reason: sport hits so many positive local and national objectives.
Sport encourages healthy lifestyles, it tackles ill health, and it can help with mental illness which is rightly being recognised as one of the main factors affecting island communities. Sporting facilities and different sports mean coaches, community involvement and volunteering. People of all ages can choose a sport they like, and do well. Parents on the islands are no different to any others across the country, spending their lives running their kids to this pitch or that pool, as I know from personal experience. Sport holds islands together and gives us a community focus which is positive, strong and uplifting.
The stand-out evening of the Shetland sporting year is the annual Sports Awards run in partnership across the local authority, the local newspaper and the islands recreation trust. We celebrate all that is good about island life.
The Island Games and sport epitomises island self confidence and identify. When Shetland won its seven gold medals in Jersey, we sang the Up Helly Aa’ song as our flag was raised over the podium. Orcadians and Western Isles athletes had their flags and their anthems. Scotland is all the better for being diverse. We should be a stronger country for recognising the strengths of islands and areas that develop their own future. The one Scotland, one-size-fits-all, centralised Scottish state is a block on this creativity, spirit and cause of self motivation. Islands would prosper without central government diktat. I had an hour with Jersey’s chief minister. Transport, health and the role of central government were easily discussed. Jersey is a crown dependency. The island passes its own laws and takes its own decisions. What’s not to like about that?
The next island games take place in the wonderful island of Gotland in 2017. Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles should be making more of their own decisions by the time this latest celebration of island sport takes place.
• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland Islands