‘You’ll love the Games’ they said. They were right

Team Jersey parading along the Esplanade in St Peter Port for the opening ceremony Picture: ROB CURRIE

DEAR Island Games,

I was a bit mixed about my first experience of you in the run up to it.

‘It’s hard work,’ they said. ‘Frantic, long hours,’ they said. ‘You’ll be wrecked,’ they said.

That it was only in Guernsey and not somewhere more ‘exotic’ failed to get my juices flowing too.

But I wanted to go. I needed to go. To get off one rock and onto another but at least somewhere different. Life in Jersey is stifling at times. I’ve been feeling stifled.

They also said ‘you’ll love it’. They also said ‘you’ll feel a bit low, a bit empty when it finishes’.

They were right on every count.

What a wonderful experience. What wonderful memories I have. What wonderful people I have met. What a wonderful island Guernsey is.

It didn’t start very well. Delayed for three hours for a flight that lasts ten minutes. I arrived with no one to greet me, taxis long gone to pick up fares somewhere else. But my fortunes quickly changed. An airport security guard called me a driver he knew well and she arrived within ten minutes. An hour later, having dropped off my suitcase at the house I was staying in, I was in town to get a quick bite and a pint. The opening ceremony had taken place before and the bars along the waterfront were buzzing. I got chatting to some friendly faces. I was sold. Let the Games begin.

The next six days I zipped across the island to catch some action in as many sports I could, with a report to follow. It started with badminton first thing Sunday morning and ended with football in the howling wind and rain on Friday afternoon, with Jersey winning gold. I know these boys. Not well. But I know them. I was proud of what they achieved. I felt part of it even though I wasn’t.

In between there was bowls, shooting, table tennis, tennis, swimming, golf, cycling, athletics, archery. The only sports I didn’t catch a sight of was basketball and sailing. But I had a few drinks and a dance with some of the girls from the basketball team on Thursday night. Earlier that day they had won their first game in an Island Games for more than 20 years, beating the Faroes. Not everything in sport ends with a first prize but golden moments can still be found along the way.

Most sports have been highly competitive across the athletes from all the islands. Success or failure is found in the margins. But there are distinct gaps in levels too. The Jersey basketball team have found that out again, as have the golfers from Hitra, the long jumper from Alderney and anyone on the end of receiving a Stuart Parker serve. But they are all here playing their part in the carnival of sport. Neither should they be diminished nor should it undermine the achievements that struck gold without breaking sweat. They were all here because they wanted to be and pull on their island’s shirt.

There were some big performances and epic battles. Local hero Sam Culverwell doing all he can to win the cycling road race, Jersey whitewashing the hosts in a tense and tenacious team table tennis final, the Isle of Man’s Rachel Franklin and Ynys Môn’s Osain Perrin destroying the field and the Island Games records in their respective 5,000m races, in Franklin’s case by just under 40 seconds – not far off a whole lap.

What also struck me was how distinct the culture was for each sport, for those participating and those close at hand watching or organising. Badminton felt a little geeky, swimming a little matriarchal, bowls a little ‘who are you young man and why are you here?’ , the football typically aggressive.

My favourite place to be though was, undeniably, the tennis. There was a chilled vibe that permeated the atmosphere even when the competition got anxious. Everybody was just bloody lovely, especially our crew. I already miss those guys and girls most of all as they return to the USA, France, UK and Portugal. I really did feel part of the team – I shared their glory and I shared their anguish. They became my friends for the week. I drank and danced with them on the last night, I waited with them at the airport for another three-hour delay, everyone tired and hungover. The girls who worked the bar at the tennis club will also be missed. They were working long hours too but they never dulled and always had a smile and a playful joke. I had a drink with them too in Les Folies d’Amour nightclub. It had been about 23 years since I had last been in there. Some of my new friends hadn’t even been born then. The club was jumping a lot more than I can remember it too – packed with all nationalities, released from the pressure of competition, enjoying each others’ company, exchanging tracksuit tops.

And what about those long and frantic hours? The keyboard has taken a hammering. There’s been no time to even text the kids let alone talk to them, the food was fast and on the go. Sometimes the toys were thrown out the pram. It’s not only the sports men and women who go through the emotions – I felt constantly hyped.

But the final word goes to Guernsey. A place of constant green lanes that throw you off course only to find you’ve reached your destination after all. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. There is a down-to-earthiness that distinguishes them from their neighbours here across the water. The rural areas feel even more rural, while our capital could learn a lot from theirs.

Okay, so the midweek night might suffer from the same tumbleweed emptiness as ours but here you will find a place that has made the most of its waterfront lined with small bars and restaurants, alongside the traditional pubs that remain, while the cobbled alleyways behind are thriving with independent shops and cafés.

So it came to an end and what a shame it had to – but had to it did. And I was just getting to know you as well. I was won over and I have my own golden moments I will cherish. I have lived a rich life full of wonderful experiences. I have seen the world. I have done so much in nearly half a century. But the Island Games experience has made me all the richer. I will see you all in Orkney in two years’ time.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Lees

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