Athletics / Island Games: Making friends can mean more than victory: They came from afar for the Island Games. Hugh Jones reports from the Isle of Wight

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The Independent Online
EAT your hearts out Manchester and Sheffield. The Isle of Wight has successfully bid for an international games, and over the last week has staged them without financial dislocation. The Island Games may not have the same ring as the millenial Olympics that Manchester is after, or even the student Universiade expensively hosted by Sheffield two years ago, but it has greater claim to the title 'The Friendly Games' than any similar celebration.

More than 2,000 athletes and officials from 19 islands contested 14 sports in the fifth biennial Island Games. They came from far and wide: the Falklands, participating for the first time, fielded 37 - more than one per cent of the population; a coach packed with 45 Saaremaa athletes travelled for three days from Estonia; fully supported by their government, 80 Greenlanders made the expensive trip over the North Atlantic; 'islanders' numbering 148 arrived from Gibraltar, hosts to the 1995 games; and the Isle of Wight supplied a total of 466 person-power, split evenly between officials and competitors.

'You know almost everybody and speak to them all no matter where they are from,' said Robert Laaksonen, of the Aland Islands, who won the 10,000 metres and the half marathon.

The atmosphere of a school sports day is striking. Emerging from the old Northern Line rolling stock that supplies the Island line, flags peep over the trees and shouts penetrate the air. Following the sound, it's the Sandown High School netball court that is the site of noisy combat between Jersey and the Isle of Wight.

Trackside, with rolling pastures and hedgerows as a backdrop and not a stand in sight, unfamiliar anthems strain through a tinny PA system and strange cruciform designs are run up flagpoles stuck rakishly in the infield as athletes mount the rostrum.

Aland had the first two in the steeplechase. 'They only had one flag,' Laaksonen said. 'They asked us if we would mind if they used a Swedish flag.' (Alanders speak Swedish, but are Finnish citizens).

Despite the protocol, imitative of bigger games, the informality remains. The schedule was quickly re-jigged on the athletics rest day so that the visiting patron, Princess Anne, had some events to appreciate.

The unforeseen occurred in other sports, too. A shot misfired into the clay pigeon machine triggered massive return fire as all the competitors dived for cover. A quick start in the Criterium cycling race around an 800m course in Ventnor town centre saw a Shetland Wheeler, after a difficult 30- hour journey, lapped and drop out 10 minutes into the hour-long event. A Saaremaa cyclist escaped the same fate through dogged unfamiliarity with English.

Despite dark clouds and rain on the final day, few returned home without a warm afterglow. Even three days bouncing around in the back of a bus could be faced by the Saaremaa team, buoyed by victory in the women's volleyball. And the wider cultural purposes so beloved of sport? A marriage proposal and acceptance in the daily newsletter testifies that the games may be a useful antidote to small-island endogamy.

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