IT professionals from across Europe converged on the small Dutch town of Bergen Op Zoom on 14 September to compete in the 25th international Computastars final.
Seasoned veterans from the UK heats knew they would have to be at their shuttle-running, stretcher-carrying, scootering best to face up to the trials that Computastars supremo Gordon Cairns had prepared for them. Swapping laptops for training shoes and the datacentre for a running track, for one day they entered a world where the only clustering on show was to be the tussle to see who would take the water jump first in the steeplechase.
Five teams from the Netherlands offered some serious competition. "We have been training since March for this," said Ton van Woerkom, team strategist and facilities manager at Compaq in Ultrecht, Holland.
Contemplating his team's performance after the step over event (involving high hurdles and low stilts) Ton said, "The events mainly consist of intensive two-minute bursts of exercise, so we have prepared for this. This is my 24th year at Computastars and I have learnt that it is best to aim for a good average on each event. If you push too hard you are likely to get disqualified and then you are out of contention."
Ton said the recent merger between HP and Compaq could lead to some difficult team selection issues in the future. "We have had an established team for a while but I am not afraid to bring in new HP people if they are the best people for the event," he said.
"It can get confusing at times, when I first started we entered as the Digital team, then Compaq and now it will be HP - at least that is easier to spell. The main thing is that we have fun. We meet up with our English friends each year and have a laugh."
However, there wasn't much laughter coming from Ernst and Young's datacentre manager John Dutton as he tried desperately to catch his breath after the two-person scooter event. "It is one of those things that looks easy but is deceptively difficult," he said between wheezes. "Pre-season football training certainly hasn't helped."
The scooters were the latest in a procession of weird and wonderful contraptions to appear from Cairns' Computastars van - a mobile cornucopia of athletic oddities that he had driven all the way from South London. Heaven only knows what Dutch customs officers would have thought if they had peeked in the back. "I saw the scooters in Halfords and just had to have them," said Cairns.
After a quarter of a century of Computastars - a competition that has played host to more than 45,000 participants over the years - Cairns' enthusiasm for the event is still strong, and his ability to devise obscure events is as honed as ever.
"Although it may seem like it, none of these events are a lottery," he explained. " They all require teamwork, thought and athleticism."
Teamwork, agreed Paula Harris, an application support manager at Reality, is vital at Computastars. When three of you are stuck in a sack together, teamwork, like it or not, is what is required, she said. "I think he just thinks up the most bizarre event and then gives it an evil twist," she added.
Whether it be Amsterdam, Brussels, Dusseldorf or Rotterdam - all venues that have hosted international Computastars competitions over the years - the curtain-call event has always been the 400m steeplechase. This year the hush that descended prior to the starting gun was tangible.
It is this traditional finale that shows the full range of athletic ability at Computastars. From the serious sports fanatics to those who set out to swim the water jump, no one flinched from the challenge, and every effort was acknowledged with hearty applause. This is the true spirit of Computastars - it is not the winning that counts, it is the getting wet, tangled up and confused.
Amit Gautama, a senior IT consultant at Oracle, summed it up. "It has not been a great year for the IT industry, but here we just come along to have a good day out and mix with other people from the industry," he said.
The honours eventually went to the Legal & General team in the women's event and Nationale Nederland Veterans in the men's competition. Ian Salisbury of Royal London and Momataz de Vries of Compaq/HP won the individual titles.
The full list of results can be found at www.computastars.demon.co.uk
This was first published in September 2002