Report on the World Schools’ Orienteering Meeting: Belgium 2004
By Paul Hutton
I was delighted to have been selected to represent the British Schools’ Orienteering Association at the World Schools’ Meeting in Belgium. I had earned this privilege by coming second in the selection race and sixth at the British Schools’ Championships in November 2003. I was to be one of five senior boys in the select team. The senior boys school team was supplied by Lancaster Grammar School as our school’s team only managed third at the British Schools Championships. I was lucky because I wasn’t as nervous as most others as I knew many of the people who were going by being a member of the North West Junior Squad and having been to the previous World Schools’ Meeting in Portugal in 2002.
I drove down to Chester youth hostel on the last Saturday of my Easter holidays with Mrs Sutcliffe, Bolton School’s orienteering coach, who was selected to coach the junior girls select team out in Belgium. We were almost the first to arrive and so I had plenty of time to unpack, that is if I had anything to unpack. I’d left the key to the padlock on my suitcase at home and so had to endure the first night armed only with what I was wearing. Despite this hiccup the first night ran smoothly and everyone arrived at different time throughout the late afternoon. Later we were treated to a great evening meal as I’ve come to expect from youth hostels.
The next day I was devastated to realise that we weren’t allowed a fried breakfast, I guess this was a wise idea but I was looking forward to something more than cereal. My dad made the hour-long trip down to Chester to drop off my missing key just before we set off for training at Delamere Forest. He was annoyed to say the least as it was very early on a Sunday morning. The training was fairly light as not to strain us before the competition and gave us the chance to have a good practice with the E-mit punching system, which I find awkward, clumsy and frankly a waste of time. The training was followed by a welcome swim at a local pool and then back to the youth hostel for a briefing for the following day of travelling.
We woke early to do any packing we needed, which in my case was almost nothing. We then set off for Manchester Airport’s Terminal 3 as we were on a British Airways flight. Bored and with little entertainment available we decided to focus our attention on the weight of our luggage to see who’s was heaviest. I won this competition after my strangely obese bag fought off stiff competition from the girls from Ulverston High School who seemed to have brought every beauty accessory they could fit in their bags.
The flight was pleasant and on our arrival we were hurried onto a coach that would take us to the Workein sports centre deep in the heart of Belgium, or a long way from the airport at least as it took us ages to get there. Here we were shown our accommodation and ate a fantastic meal that was much better than the minimalist meals we received in Portugal two years previous.
The following day was Tuesday when we would have the opening ceremony and model event. The opening ceremony was short but sweet but especially memorable for me as I was asked to read the English translation of the “Competitor’s Oath” in front of the massed athletes and coaches from sixteen countries. Thankfully I didn’t mess up and could sit down and enjoy the music booming from the huge sound system that would be used for our disco the night after. We were then shipped to the model event, which was held on and around a Belgian army base, but the terrain was similar to that where the event would be held. This proved invaluable for seeing the way different features and vegetation were mapped and to meet other competitors from other countries, which was very interesting and the language barrier often caused comic moments. Upon our return to our chalets we were briefed on the upcoming first event, which was the classic race, and a lazy evening followed with an early lights-out.
We woke at a ridiculous time of 6:30 in order to shower, pack our kit and reach breakfast in time. Some lucky ones got a lie in and were on the second shift for breakfast but us unfortunate ones woke ourselves, and a rather grumpy Chinese coach, up with The Offspring, Oasis, Queen and The Beetles courtesy of an iPod and some portable speakers. Once at the event I found I had three hours of spare time on my hands and began to rue getting up so early. Nevertheless this gave me plenty of time to prepare for the race and use the warm up area. The race itself was very fast, due to the open forests and easy technicality of the courses, and despite only making one mistake, caused by them blocking the route to one of my controls with tape, I came 17th. This was an achievement as some of the other runners were up to eighteen years old and the Swedish senior teams even went to orienteering schools of excellence. Our team was now poised 6th with a real mountain to climb in order to reach a desired podium and medal position. Following a rather tedious prize giving, where England tried to put out claim in for the fair play trophy by cheering for anything and everything as loud as we could, especially when a member of our squad won a medal, we were treated to a very loud and enjoyable disco. Here the socialising continued and already people had formed friendships with competitors from other countries. The music was mainly English and American bands and some of the English lads decided they would show of their dancing skills atop a table to the beats of the infamous “YMCA”.
The following morning we got a slight rest bite with a lie in and breakfast at 9:00. This was because it was our day off from orienteering and instead we were to experience a cultural tour of Belgium, consisting of a visit to a nearby mine and a spot of shopping in Lielé, a large city in the region. The mine was really interesting, contrary to popular prediction. We were able to actually go down into the old mine tunnels to see, hear and experience the machines and conditions there would have been years ago when the mine was operational. The tour guide was a former miner there, which gave the whole experience a more personal twist. The city of Lielé was similar to any English city with all the big high street names and most took advantage of the McDonalds and the many quality Belgian chocolate. Although some rather suspect “random” items were bought by the lads. After this pleasant excursion we returned to the sports centre and attention turned to the next day and the short race.
Thankfully the organisers had altered the timings for breakfast and I was able to eat at a later time so as not to have such a long time to wait at the start. The short race was on a very similar area of forest to the classic race, a flat, open and fast forest. Our team of senior boys select managed to crawl back up the leader board to fourth from sixth but unfortunately missed out on the medals and I managed a respectable 15th individually. The event was followed by another prize giving and an excellent “cultural fair” where each country gave a small display of why people would want to visit their country and provide some kind of food from that country for people to savour. For us this meant handing out selections of English sweets, such as humbugs, Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls and Kendal mint cake. We even helped the Scottish lads out at a bit of traditional Scottish dancing.
The following day was the friendship relay in which each competitor was placed in a team of three runners from different countries and had to complete what was basically a mini score event. There was a slight competitive element but the prime aim of the event was to have fun. Luckily both other members of my team spoke good English and we could quickly decipher who would get each control. At the finish there was the opportunity to swap items of clothing and after a bit of wheeling and dealing I managed to obtain a Chinese t-shirt and an Israeli o-top. Following an afternoon of football, when we beat the Belgians and the Chinese, we had a final prize giving and a spectacular closing ceremony with a display by a human pyramid building team. A disco followed this but the sound system had been removed and the organisers left it up to us competitors to do a DIY disco whilst the coaches massed in the dining hall for a special dinner.
Then it was time for the goodbyes as the Austrians left at one o’clock in the morning and other countries left early the next day. Stupidly I left my packing till the Sunday morning and rushed to cram it all in. We left the sports centre around 2:30 and arrived at the airport with near five hours to waste eating and buying last minute souvenirs. The plane home was very quite as most of us were exhausted by the week’s activities and dreading the thought of going back to school in the morning.