The long history of sports cooperation in the Barents region has reached a new level with the multi-sport Barents Winter and Summer Games. Sport cooperation in the region also includes many other things than just competitions.
Barents cooperation in sports has long and well established roots, but the Barents Games, a multi-sport event, is a new phenomenon. The first Barents Winter Games took place in 2014 in Tromsø, and in August 2015 the summer sports also got their own event, as the first Barents Summer Games ever were held in Oulu.
The Games were as authentic international sports event as can be, including fierce competition between 1200 young athletes in 14 different sports, an inauguration ceremony held in the centre of Oulu culminating in a greeting from the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, and lots of visibility in the local media. “Best ever”, to quote Claes Gregart, a Swede whose work as an international coordinator of Barents Sports has concentrated mostly on launching the Barents Winter and Summer Games.
Osmo Happonen, the chair of the organizing committee, agreed:
“Already in Tromsø it was clear that this concept was a success, and that feeling has only strengthened here.”
The organization of multi-sport games instead of various smaller events had already been discussed earlier, with even some attempts. To create combined Games of various single-sport events and tournaments has taken time, but now the path is open.
“Now that we have succeeded in organizing both Winter and Summer Games, the arrangements will become much easier. The different sports are now really eager to be part of the future games, there will be no need to persuade them”, tells Claes Gregart.
Long history helps
Both Osmo Happonen and Claes Gregart agree that the long history of sports cooperation in the region has been of much help in the creation of the Barents Games. The first competitions between Sweden, Norway and Finland took place already in the 1950s, and Russia joined in during the 1990s.
“When the sports cooperation here started, it was much easier to travel between countries in east-west direction than it was to travel from the northern parts of the country to the south”, tells Norwegian Hans P. Ludwigsen, a long-time international coordinator for Barents sports. Ludwigsen, who has earned the nickname “Mr. Barents”, has been involved in the sports cooperation in the region for over 40 years.
“The sports have changed during years, although some of them, like wrestling, archery, swimming and track and field have been in the program from the beginning. The big change is the combined Games whereas earlier one sport was organized here and the other there, which didn’t gather interest from the press”, tells Ludwigsen.
Young athletes in focus
Hans P. Ludwigsen tells also that the sports cooperation in the Barents region has always centred on young athletes. The Barents Summer Games did not make an exception, as the age limit was 15 to 25 years (in some events, as the football, the maximum age was even lower).
A good example of a young athlete competing in the Games was Julie Ulrikke Øynebråten, a Norwegian rifle shooter. For her, the Games were already the second ones, as shooting was in the program also in the Tromsø Winter Games, where she won the event despite having started the sport only months before the Games.
“In Tromsø I felt like I was competing at home, but here it’s different. I have competed in international games earlier too, but in the Barents Games it is easier to get into contact with other competitors, as there are not so many people”, says Julie Øynebråten, who recals that her goal is in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
For Sergey Riabyshkin, a Russian orienteer from Murmansk, it was the first time participating the Games, though it didn’t matter:
“People are the same after all, and sportsmen are always friendly to each other. The level of the competitors here is high, but I am aiming at a medal”, told Sergey, who fulfilled his aim with a silver medal. His future target is to compete in Orienteering World Championships one day.
Not only about sports
The sports cooperation in the Barents region is unique both in its longevity and as a concept. The more southern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia do not have such forms of cooperation. According to Claes Gregart, the northern brand also makes the games more interesting to other people.
“We have been contacted by people from many European countries who want to create something similar as the Barents Games. I am most proud of the speed at which the brand has spread”, he says.
The Barents Games as a concept and the Barents sports cooperation are not limited to the actual competitions, but they also consist of courses and camps as well as promoting the sport history of the region. The Hall of Fame for Barents Sports was founded in the Tromsø Winter Games and will be supplemented in all the future games by one male and one female athlete from the host country. In Oulu, the new members nominated to the Hall of Fame were Tuomas Sammelvuo, a former captain of Finnish national volleyball team, and Karina Kukkonen, a promising golfer.
“Mr. Barents” Ludwigsen agrees that the other parts of the sports cooperation are as important as the competitions themselves.
“In the courses and camps, it has been interesting to learn about differences of group behaviour between young Scandinavians and Russians. And I have met many interesting people with whom it’s nice to share old memories. Here I met one Russian team leader whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years, after he had moved from Murmansk to Moscow. We have to find time to sit down and talk.”
The next Barents Games are the Barents Winter Games in Murmansk. They will take place in April 2016.
Text: Ilkka Tiensuu