History of the Island Games 1985 - 1995

by Geoffrey Corlett, former Island Games Association General Secretary, Isle of Man

In 1985 the Isle of Man hosted the First Inter-Island Games, an ambitious and exciting concept of bringing together a number of small islands from different parts of the world, to participate in a festival of sport.

Geographically, participants came from as far afield as Iceland and Scandinavia in the northern hemisphere, the British Isles, Mediterranean and down to the small island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Islanders all, but some with different languages and cultures, which added a richness and diverse quality to the Games.

This brilliant idea was to provide the ideal opportunity for hundreds of young sportsmen and women from these small island communities, to compete and enjoy international competition against other islanders with similar standards of performance. For the majority the challenge to represent one’s island is a highly motivating factor, and to compete in such an international event is indeed the pinnacle of achievement, plus the added incentive for training and striving to win a coveted Games medal. The other benefits of such a unique festival of sport are the opportunities for cultural exchange and social interaction with visiting teams, and to establish new lifelong friendships with fellow islanders.

The intention of this article (first chapter of new book as advertised on back pages) is to record how it all started and document the tremendous progress that has been made in the first ten years of the Association. In December 1982, and early in 1983, the Tourist Board (now Department) and the Isle of Man Sports Council met to look at the feasibility of having a Year of Sport in 1985, with literally hundreds of sporting events being held throughout the year. To assess support for this proposal, a meeting was convened in January 1983, to which representatives from local sports organisations were invited along with the Tourist Board and Sports Council. It was very clear that there was unanimous support from the thirty organisations present for the idea of a Year of Sport, and 1985 had been chosen as it fell between the Olympic Games of 1984 and the Commonwealth Games of 1986.

Mr Noel Cringle M.H.K., who at that time was Chairman of the Sports Council, chaired the above meeting and was then able to present a very strong case in Tynwald (Manx Parliament) that 1985 be designated Isle of Man Year of Sport. All credit to Noel for his initiative and for successfully steering this Resolution through Tynwald. One of the attractions and highlights, to be included in the Year of Sport, would be a Mini Island Games, for small island communities. Earlier, in 1979, the Island had celebrated Millennium year, one thousand years of Parliament on this island, when additional tourist attractions were planned, resulting in many thousands of extra visitors coming here to join the celebrations to mark this historic year. The general consensus was that the Year of Sport would also attract many more visitors with a 12-month programme of sports events to include national, international and other prestigious events, with the theme of “Sport for All” underpinning the year’s programme, both for visitors and members of the local community alike.

The next political decision was to agree on government funding for the period leading up to and including 1985, somewhat difficult to estimate as this was uncharted territory as the 12-month programme had yet to be planned and organised. The total grant for the period November 1983 to April 1986 eventually amounted to £350,000, though the actual expenditure came to just over £300,000. This generous government financial support was to have a considerable bearing on the Isle of Man being able to stage and host the First Island Games, by offering a very attractive package to visiting teams.

The Government recognised the urgent need to appoint a sports administrator, and in the autumn of 1983, Geoffrey Corlett, a well-known Manx sportsman, was appointed Organising Director for the 1985 Year of Sport. He had studied at St. Paul’s College, Cheltenham, Loughborough College and Birmingham University, his career spanning 35 years as a specialist teacher and Physical Education Advisor. Prior to his retiring to his native Isle of Man in 1983, he served the last 26 years on the staff at The College of St. Paul and St. Mary, Cheltenham, as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physical Education, Sport and Recreation.

He was also heavily involved in British Colleges’ student sport, particularly gymnastics, and as Chairman for water polo and swimming, and a selector for the World Student Games. His textbook for teachers on the theory and practice of teaching swimming is widely used in this country and overseas. He also has had a particular interest in sport and physical recreation for the disabled and mentally handicapped, and was a founder member and later elected President of the Island Sports School Federation.

In the autumn of 1985 Geoffrey received the Presidential award of the International Federation of Physical Education (one of only three awarded world wide in that year), the citation expressed ‘Many congratulations on the organisation of the Year of Sport, and in recognition of 35 years of outstanding service to Physical Education and Sport, to specialist Teacher Training, and the teaching and coaching of swimming’.

With the secretariat in place, the Executive Committee was duly elected, with Noel Cringle M.H.K. as Chairman, Eddie Lowey M.L.C., (Chairman of the Tourist Board), Tony Brown M.H.K. and the late George Fathers, the elected representative of the Sports Council. This small committee worked closely together in the lead up to 1985, and were all to become involved on other committees as well, particularly the Island Games.

The Year of Sport office opened in November 1983, and was located on the whole of the second floor of the prominent Sea Terminal Building in Douglas, with magnificent views across the bay and beyond to the heather and gorse clad hills rising up to Snaefell, the highest point on the island. Mrs Joan Tattersall was appointed as secretary and Mr John Gelling as assistant to the Organiser. Once the office was established detailed planning started on the programme for 1985, which included the Island Games.

Regular meetings were held with the Year of Sport Executive Committee and the first question regarding the games was which, and how many, islands should be invited to take part. The committee agreed that in the first instance the Isle of Man Government should send invitations to Scandinavian countries which had historical links with the Isle of Man, and those with Viking connections such as Orkney, Shetland, Iceland and Greenland. Letters were sent to the Icelandic, Danish and Swedish Embassies, and to the Det Kongelige Kultur-Og Vitenskapsdepartement in Oslo. This last invitation resulted in the two small Norwegian islands of Frøya and Hitra enthusiastically accepting, as did Gotland (Sweden), Iceland, Orkney and Shetland.

The Isle of Man and the Channel Isles of Guernsey and Jersey are members of the Commonwealth Games Federation and are well known to each other not only for sport but also through many business and commercial links that exist between these islands. Both Guernsey and Jersey responded quickly and were very keen to support this exciting venture, as was Malta.

We were very pleased that Anglesey (Ynys Môn) also accepted and invitations were sent to the Italian island of Capri, the Falkland Islands and Prince Edward Island, Canada.

We then, with much interest, waited for the replies. Many islands quickly responded and accepted the invitation with great enthusiasm and some interesting stories emerged. The ‘island bush telegraph system’ was obviously soon in action. Åland heard about the proposed Games from their friends in the Faroe Islands, and without delay contacted our office and we were pleased to accept them both. The Director of Education, Isle of Wight attended a conference where he heard about the 1985 Games from another delegate and, on his return, immediately contacted Vernon Shimmin the Physical Education Advisor giving him permission and encouragement to go ahead and organise a team to represent the Isle of Wight. Short notice indeed, but Vernon made a valiant effort and a team was entered in time to take part. Unfortunately, the Falkland Islands had to decline the invitation with regret, because the ravages of war had destroyed many of their facilities, particularly their shooting ranges. Likewise Capri were about to have their elections so could make no promises for the new Government, and Prince Edward Island was also unable to be represented on this occasion.

By chance, the Hon. Eric Benjamin from St. Helena was attending a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in the Isle of Man in the autumn of 1984. Mr Benjamin was a former student of St. Paul’s College, Cheltenham, and so knew Geoffrey Corlett, and during a social get-together Mr Benjamin made it known that he was very keen that an invitation be extended to his island, 4,500 miles away in the South Atlantic, with a population of only 5,500. This news received attention in the national press. In the London Times, dated 30th March 1985, it reported ‘The Napoleonic island of St. Helena has just confirmed it will take part in the inaugural Inter-Island Games which will be held in July on the Isle of Man.... This will not be the first contact between the Isle of Man and St. Helena. A Manxman Mark Wilks, was Governor of St. Helena when Napoleon was there.’ On his return Eric Benjamin set the wheels in motion, and the islanders from this small community raised £12,000 with the Government giving £3,000 so that a team of seven could represent St. Helena at the Games. Boxes were left in different parts of the island for welcome contributions!

Initially it was thought about six or eight teams would take part in the First Games - it finished up with 15! They were; Åland, Anglesey (Ynys Môn), Faroe Islands, Frøya, Gotland, Guernsey, Hitra, Iceland, Isle of Wight, Jersey, Malta, Orkney Isles, Shetland, St. Helena and the hosts, the Isle of Man.

The next issue was to decide on the choice and number of sports. A questionnaire was sent to all islands, and the returns indicated the most popular sports to be athletics, badminton, cycling, shooting, football (under 16 five-a-side), swimming and volleyball. The boys under 16 soccer was included in recognition of the fact that 1985 had also been designated ‘International Youth Year’, and we considered that it would be appropriate to include one youth event in the programme. The fact that the small Norwegian island of Frøya won this unique competition, brought great jubilation to the youngsters, for a fine team performance, and the success of the event more than justified its inclusion.

It was agreed that no qualifying standards would be imposed in athletics and swimming, in order to encourage maximum participation. This policy has continued, but competitors are now fully aware of the standards required, as are the member islands when selecting their teams.

It is interesting to note that apart from football the other six events have remained as the “core” or obligatory sports in the Island Games, and at present appear as such in the I.G.A. Constitution

The number of sports has increased from seven in 1985 to fourteen in 1993 (Isle of Wight) and fourteen again in 1995 (Gibraltar), bringing the number of sports for the period 1985-95 in all, to sixteen (Fig 1).

The number of member islands increased from 1985-1995. A warm welcome was given to these islands when they participated in their first Games, as follows: Alderney, Gibraltar, and Sark in 1987 (Guernsey); Greenland in 1989 (Faroe Islands); Prince Edward Island and Saaremaa in 1991 (Åland); The Falkland Islands in 1993 (Isle of Wight).

Malta competed in 1985 and 1987 but due to Olympic and Commonwealth Games’ commitments, the resulting financial constraints prevented them from continuing their membership of the Island Games Association.

Prior to 1985, every detail of organisation was carefully considered and finalised, with a sound committee and management structure covering all aspects of the Games organisation (Fig 2).

Medals were designed to include the Year of Sport distinctive logo, and the commissioning of the Games Flag. This was designed by Mr Norman Sayle, a lecturer in the Art Department, at The Isle of Man College of Further Education. The light and dark blue represent the sky and seas surrounding our islands, green for the fields and the interlocking Celtic links symbolising the friendly sporting and cultural links that join our small island communities together. The I.G.A. badge has a similar design, the white being symbolic for peace among all nations of the world.

The Year of Sport Committee agreed to donate a trophy to be awarded at each Games to the most successful team based on the final medal table, and this would be presented at the closing ceremony.

Of historical interest is the fact that the Island Games Association (I.G.A.) was instituted on Tuesday, 23rd July, 1985, at the conclusion of the First Inter-Island Games in the Isle of Man. The term “Inter” was subsequently dropped.

We are all justly proud of our Association and hope that future generations will remember the fundamental aims and principles on which these Games were founded. These were to foster and strengthen the spirit of true friendship between our island communities through sport, cultural links and social interaction, and that in striving to achieve excellence in performance, the values of fair play and good sportsmanship should remain a central theme in our Games.