Athletes test strength at Highland Games
Okotoks: Traiditional Scottish events return for fifth year
By: Roxanne Blackwell
| Posted: Wednesday, Aug 20, 2014 03:53 pm
It isn’t very often that you see people in Okotoks donning kilts, and it’s even less common to see them throwing an 18-ft-long wooden pole through the air – but this weekend 17 competitors will be doing just that.
Athletes will prove themselves on Aug. 23 at the Foothills Composite High School field in the ultimate test of strength and precision for the fifth time in Okotoks at the Foothills Highland Games.
There are eight events that feature stone and hammer throwing, as well as the crowd favourite caber toss, which involves a telephone pole-like beam being thrown and flipped by competitors.
“It's not how far you can throw it, it's not how fast you can run with it, it’s an accuracy event,” said Scottish Athletics in Alberta president Megan Melham, who will be competing in Okotoks. “The reason you run with it is to get enough momentum so you can turn it over, the name of the game is to flip the tiny end that you're holding in your hand over completely (and have it land straight.)”
Melham said it’s also one of the more intimidating events for newcomers and requires hours of training to perfect the technique.
“In order to get good at it you really have to practice, and it is one of the scarier events for new people just because as soon as you have it in your hands you're like 'oh I’m balancing this on my hands and on my shoulder and that's it,’” she said.
The heavy games predate recorded history, and the traditions are all based in Scottish culture. For the stone put event, which is similar to Olympic shot put, the 20-26lb men’s stone is called a Braemar, and is named after the iconic Scottish castle.
“That name actually came from Braemar Castle, where in order for visitors to stay for the night they had to prove their worth and their ability to defend the castle by throwing a stone a certain distance,” Melham said.
While the events are centered on displays of pure strength, Melham said as a small stature woman, she fits in just fine with the boys.
“When I’m walking into competition and I say I’m competing a lot of people will say ‘oh you’re a dancer?’ So for me a lot of people are surprised that I compete in the heavy events,” she said. “I like pushing the boundary of what people think is acceptable.”
But Melham said the heavy events community is incredibly welcoming to all people regardless of gender, size or ability.
“You have to be good at all of these events, but the people are cheering for you at the same time. It’s very un-track and field like in the fact that, yeah I’m competing against you, but I still want you to do well. So if I see you doing something wrong I’ll try and help you fix it so you do better,” she said. “It’s the community that really sold it for me, it's very supportive.”
While Melham said she’s in the gym at least five times week training, they accept newcomers who want to give it a shot and try out events. If people are interested in competing in the Foothills Highland Games, Melham said they can get in touch with her to register.
In addition to the heavy events, Foothills Highland Games chair Spencer Collins said the rest of the entertainment provides a great mix of culture for people to take in.
“It’s a good family event. There’s a high volume of energy, music, the family atmosphere – and that to me is very Scottish. That whole atmosphere has been replicated fantastically,” he said.
The gates open at 7 a.m. and Highland dance, piping and drumming competitions will be taking place throughout the day. Collins said his favourite part of the day is when the pipers enter the arena for the final time and said he challenges spectators not to get goosebumps while taking it all in.
The Rotary Club of Okotoks will be serving traditional Scottish haggis sliders for lunch starting at 11:30 a.m. and Collins warns that the food almost always runs out within an hour.
Entertainment at the ceilidh tent will be Alberta’s own Celtic band Fraid Knot, which begins at 6:30 p.m. and is also a family friendly event.
Admission to the games is $10 at the gate, or $25 for a family pass. The Ceilidh requires a separate $10 ticket which Collins recommends buying at the same time as it does sell out.