A 94-strong pool of Shetland’s finest athletes and sports people will set off on a two-hour charter flight from Aberdeen on Friday morning to take part in the 13th Island Games, being held this year in the Finnish island of Åland.
Åland is the main island in an archipelago of 6,500 islands and skerries between Finland and Sweden and sportsmen and women from as far afield as St Helena and the Falklands – some of whom set off more than a week ago – will also be taking part.
After a day of acclimatisation and training, the opening ceremony will be held on Saturday evening in the main town of Mariehamn before the real action gets under way on Sunday.
Shetland’s first proper competitive action will come in the football under manager John Jamieson at the Hammarvallen ground against Menorca at noon on Sunday local time, while later that day runners Karl Simpson and Bill Adams will be looking for glory in the men’s 10,000m final.
Including officials, managers and coaches, Shetland is sending 99 delegates this year, substantially higher than the pool of 64 which took part in Rhodes back in 2007. The numbers have been bolstered by a sizeable athletics contingent and the return of the men’s football team – the first time they will compete in the Island Games since beating Guernsey 2-0 at Gilbertson Park four years ago to clinch the gold medal.
Shetland will be competing in nine of the 14 sports in a competition which will last for eight days at venues all across the island. Cycling is one of the sports which has been excluded this time around, while Shetland’s badminton and volleyball players, along with the women’s football team, have decided to sit this one out.
Despite the notable absence of serial medal-winning runner Claire Wilson, team manager Bob Kerr is hopeful that the young team can return with a substantial medal haul. There are 18 members of the team under the age of 18 so it is likely to be a useful opportunity to gain experience for the future for some of the competitors.
Mr Kerr said: “I’m happy with the size of the team [and] there’s some strong medal contenders across the sports. The footballers have got a tough draw, ending up in the same group as the home team. That match on Monday night is going to be a big crowd-puller, and a huge match for the Shetland players.”
|Hopes high for archers and shooters|
The Shetland squad will be hoping to return with a reasonable tally of medals, particularly from the individual sportsmen and women who often perform well above expections.
Archery and shooting are two pursuits in which Shetland has regularly provided winners, and experienced campaigners such as Billy Finnie, Sara Leith and Keith Lobban will be hoping for further success in the former.
Pistol shooters are notably absent this time round, with no Kevin Gray or David Lewis, but the clay pigeon marksmen are there in force. John Magnus Laurenson is definitely one to watch, with Peter Davies and Jim Wood another two wily old troupers who have been there and seen it all many times before.
Hopes are high in table tennis for young Lynda Flaws, still only 16 but able to boast medals from the past two games. Unfortuntately she has no women’s doubles partner this time round but she will be fancied to do well in the singles, where she is the current under-18 Scottish champion.
In the pool Andrea Strachan is the obvious candidate to mount the medal rostrum, having gained a gold and silver two years ago in Rhodes, but swmming is always a strong event with the Channel Islands in particular providing strength in depth. The up-and-coming Amy Harper may also be hoping to improve on last time around.
Moving to the track and field events the absence of Claire Wilson, the golden girl of Shetland athletics, is a massive blow. However, there are a whole host of promising youngsters such as Joshua Morrison, and some of the older team members such as triple jumper Sakchai Makao and hammer thrower Elaine Park will surely be in with a shout. Then there is distance runner Michell Sandison, who won gold in 2005 and is back in the squad having missed the last games in Rhodes.
The sailors and windsurfers are a blend of youth and experience, with the likes of Graham Nicol and Allan Henderson joined by the youthful exuberance of Maggie Adamson, Jeff Dobson and Catriona Nicol. Medals will be extremely difficult but they will no doubt give it their all.
Teenage golfer Jordan Leask has the daunting prospect of having to do it all on his own, being the sole member of the Shetland team. But again he is a competitor who has already shown he can hold his own with people who have vastly more experience.
Finally the football team are up against it, with three group matches in as many days against Menorca, Greenland and host island Åland. Having already tasted gold they will at least want to make it through to the semi-finals, but it is a tough ask.
He said there was also a good possibility of success, as usual, in the shooting and archery events, while Scottish under-18 table tennis champion Lynda Flaws will also be in with a shout of taking home medals.
Mr Kerr is confident that the organisational difficulties which blighted the games in Rhodes two years ago will be a distant memory thanks to the meticulous approach of the Scandinavians. He pointed out that, with a population of around 25,000, the games will be much more of a focal point for the wider community in Åland, whereas it was only a small part of the tourist season in the much larger Greek island.
“I think there were a lot of lessons learned from Rhodes,” he said. “If I was to be polite, it’s probably just a lack of understanding of the scale of the games and that’s really where Rhodes didn’t meet the aims for a host. The people of Åland have hosted it before, 18 years ago in 1991 and they understand what the games is about.
“They’re one of the biggest and most enthusiastic teams at every games and I think they’ll embrace the games with open arms. They’re very friendly, very welcoming, they’re also crucially the next biggest island after Shetland. What that means is I think that everybody in Åland is going to hear about the games, and hundreds – if not thousands – are going to be involved as volunteers just as we did in 2005.”
He added: “A lot of events are based in Mariehamn, but the sports venues are scattered across the island so there will be a lot of mingling of visiting teams and the local population, which is great because that’s what the games is all about.”
The competition draws to a close a week tomorrow, with the Shetland squad – hopefully laden with medals – flying home and then catching the boat from Aberdeen on Sunday 5th July.
Chairman of the Shetland Island Games Association Andrew Inkster said: “After several months of local planning, preparation and fund-raising, we are now all set for Åland. Team Shetland is looking forward to an exciting and intense week of competition. We have every confidence that the organising committee and people of Åland will deliver a successful games.”
Jim Moar, manager of Hay & Co Buildbase in Lerwick, which has supplied the tracksuits for Team Shetland, added: “We are delighted to sponsor Team Shetland again this year at this high profile international sports event and we wish all the Shetland competitors the very best of luck during games week.”
The Shetland Times will be providing daily reports and photos direct from Åland on the fortunes of Shetland’s top athletes every day during the 13th Island Games at www.shetlandtimes.co.uk