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In Barents Region, sports leading the way in cooperation

A great number of young people take part in cross-border sports activities in the Barents Region

Football players and cross-country skiers already in the 1960s crossed the borders between East and West to compete. Today, sports continues to be a core part in the Barents Cooperation.

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“What we did back then was important peace-promoting work”, Stanislav Vyazmensky, former leader of the Murmansk Sports Committee, says. But he admits that it was difficult to maneuver between the parts. The ideological gap between the Soviet Union and the Nordic neighbors, among them Nato-member Norway, was considerable, and the security services closely monitored, and partly also engaged in, the activities. Vyazmensky, now aged 85, headed the Committee for a great number of years, and was instrumental in all issues of international relations.

In a recent meeting with sports veterans from Kirkenes, the neighboring Norwegian town, Vyazmensky remembers the years with the first cross-border sports activities with joy. The sports visits across the borders opened a new world to the participants and revealed differences in culture, equipment and training methodology, but also a common interest in cooperation. In a period of ice cold war, the athletes in many ways pioneered the opening of a new people-to-people approach in relations.

In 1965, the first Soviet cross-country skiers visited Norway to take part in competitions. At the same time, Norwegian and Finnish skiers crossed over to Murmansk to compete there. The Northern Festival (Prazdnik Severa) assembled thousands of skiers from all over the Soviet Union. The festival was soon branded as the “Polar Olympic Games” because of its huge popularity and attendance.

Today, the Murmansk Sports Committee is headed by Svetlana Naumova. She admits that the Northern Festival is not as popular as it was in the Soviet period. But it still remains a hugely important event in regional sports. A total of ten winter disciplines, from kiting to the traditional cross-country skiing marathon, are organized and visitors from several countries come to participate. At the same time, Murmansk is in the process of conducting a major reconstruction of its skiing stadium at Dolina Uyuta (“Pleasure Valley”), and this will ultimately make the region well prepared for organizing bigger skiing events, including international competitions.

The sports cooperation in the Cold War period prepared the ground for the following generations. Today, sports are a key component in the Barents Cooperation, and sports associations, clubs, trainers and athletes from a wide variety of disciplines take part in cross-border activities.

“Sports is perhaps the most efficient way of getting people engaged in cross-border activities,” Kim Stenersen from the Norwegian Barents Secretariat says to BarentsObserver. “Everyone likes sports, it helps build friendships between young people and it engages a wide variety of people in sound competition”, she adds. According to Stenersen, a sports coordinator at the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, this collaboration is one of the most successful components in the Barents Cooperation.

The Norwegian Barents Secretariat supports cross-border sports initiatives with small grants. In 2013, the Secretariat allocated more than 2,3 million kroner (€275,000) to sports projects and the grant activities included more than 3000 people, Stenersen says. The Barents Secretariat is a support institution for the Barents Cooperation, the well-established and institutionalized collaboration between Norway, Russia, Finland and Sweden.

Over the years, the regional sports cooperation has been institutionalized with the establishment of a Barents Sports Committee and the organization of Barents Sports Conferences between the four countries’ sports confederations. A total of 12 disciplines are officially included in the cooperation; basketball, biathlon, wrestling, archery, athletics, orienteering, bowling, skating, shooting, swimming, cycling and gymnastics. However, in addition, a major number of clubs are engaged, among them in football and ice hockey. In the border areas between the countries, the local hockey teams have even established their own cross-border league.

In 2014, the first multi-discipline Barents Games is to be organized in Tromsø, Norway. That is expected to further heaten up competition between the countries.