From Neil Riddell in Åland Photos by Kevin Jones
Åland’s main town of Mariehamn was bathed in glorious early evening sunshine as 3,100 athletes from 24 islands and many hundreds of spectators witnessed the colourful official opening ceremony for the 2009 Island Games on Saturday.
The two-hour fanfare could scarcely have been in starker contrast to when Shetland hosted the games four years ago, when a torrential downpour led to the curtain-raiser being scaled back.
Mariehamn, home to a native population of around 11,000, is expecting an influx of more than 4,000 visitors over the week and has been basking in beautiful sunshine, clear blue skies and light winds ever since competitors began arriving on Thursday.
The isles’ 94-strong squad of competitors was out in force for the parade, with Lerwick postman and veteran of no less than nine previous games Bill Adams given the honour of carrying the blue and white flag and table tennis protege Lynda Flaws as Shetland’s designated carrier for the traditional water ceremony, the games’ equivalent of the Olympic flame.
Of those participating in Åland, an archipelago of 6,500 islands and skerries, there are 22 competitors who took part in last year’s Beijing Olympics. Teams from as far afield as the southern Atlantic (St Helena and the Falklands) and the Caribbean have arrived to compete for medals in 15 sports. Shetland’s distant Scottish cousins from the Western Isles arrived just minutes before the ceremony began.
Playing host to the whole spectacle was a packed Wiklöf Holding Arena, usually the home of local football side IFK Mariehamns, who play in the Finnish Premier Division. As well as the opening and closing games of the men’s football competition, it will be the venue for this week’s programme of athletics.
In the day or so since they touched down in the semi-autonomous, Swedish-speaking region of Finland on a charter flight direct from Aberdeen on Friday afternoon, the squad and their loyal band of supporters have been captivated by the beautifully flat, tree-laden landscape and scenery. Spirit in the camp seems by and large to be very good and competitors watching the ceremony just seemed eager for the action to start for real after a day of training and preparation.
Most of the sports kick off on Sunday, with Shetland having an interest in the athletics, football, sailing, shooting, table tennis and windsurfing events, though the swimmers and archers will have to wait an extra 24 hours to get under way and the isles’ sole golfer Jordan Leask does not tee off competitively at the King’s Course until Tuesday.
Boasting an entertainment programme which was nothing if not diverse, those gathered witnessed a live performance of the Island Games anthem, followed by a lively stint from a group of young dancers. Karate club Ogawa also took a turn, while there was a baffling and slightly bizarre combination of music and stand-up comedy from Canadian-born Stockholm resident Jack Mittleman.
After speeches from various dignitaries, including 2009 organising committee chairman Dick Ekström and International Island Games Association chairman Jörgen Pettersson, speaker of the Åland parliament Roger Nordlund declared the games officially open. Following the water ceremony, where water from each island is poured together as a symbol of friendship, were a second dubious stint from Mittleman, a medley of Queen songs from local collective Queenian Rhapsody and a small burst of fireworks.
Adams, 62, is one of the oldest athletes taking part this year and competed at the inaugural Island Games in the Isle of Man back in 1985. Carrying the flag was, he said, the “ultimate honour” and “a nice way to bow out of Island Games competition”.
Ahead of running in the 10,000m on Sunday evening and his preferred event, the half marathon, on Friday, Adams said there was no doubt the heat wave which has enveloped the island over the past week will have some effect on the times athletes are able to record.
Speaking of his impending retirement, he added: “It’s time to leave it to the younger guys to go through the pain barrier; I’m still competing after 24 years in the half marathon which is pretty good so [it’s time to] leave it to the young guys to hurt from now on.”
At the other end of the age spectrum, 16-year-old Flaws is among the team’s younger members and the Scottish under-18 table tennis champion will be gunning for glory in the mixed doubles – pairing up for the first time with Daniel Mainland – and women’s singles later this week, though she does not have a women’s doubles partner in Åland.
Competing in her third games already, having taken part and won a silver medal in the women’s doubles at the age of just 12 in Shetland four years ago, she said: “If possible, I’d like to try and get a medal but I know it’ll be hard this year because it’s a tough competition again. My best result so far in the singles is quarter-finals, so if I could improve on that I’d be much happier, and if I could beat some players I haven’t beaten before then I’d be happy.”