On your marks

As Computastars, the IT industry's annual sporting event, enters its 24th year, Roisin Woolnough investigates the philosophy...

As Computastars, the IT industry's annual sporting event, enters its 24th year, Roisin Woolnough investigates the philosophy behind the fun

Sport without fun isn't sport. That is the motto of Computastars, the IT industry's It's a Knockout-style sporting event.

Kicking off on 3 June, Computastars is a mix of weird and wonderful physical challenges to test the stamina, strength and dexterity of contestants. Now in its 24th year, the event is still going strong, with many ITers returning to compete every year.

Gordon Cairns is the brains behind the competition. Cairns, director of microfilming company TMC Services, explains how it all began 24 years ago after he talked to Computer Weekly about establishing a sporting event specifically for IT professionals.

"We had already set up an annual cricket tournament against Computer Weekly people," he says. "Then I was talking to a couple of people from Computer Weekly who wanted to run a golf tournament. But how many people play golf? I wanted something that gets everyone involved. A month later, I was watching Superstars on television and thought it might be a good idea."

For Cairns, the whole point was to create an event that anyone in IT could participate in, regardless of skill, age or gender. "I didn't want it to be for specialists. I wanted something varied enough so that everyone could get involved."

The result was a series of events, including a basketball relay and weightlifting, with the final challenge usually being a steeplechase race in which competitors run 400m and leap over a hurdle into a pool of water.

Although most people dread the steeplechase the first time they do it, Cairns says it has become a real favourite. "It is a good, gutsy event. It is the staple event and is also the spectators' revenge."

Heats take place throughout the summer, with a grand final for the best teams at the end of July. This year, the final will be held in Jersey.

Cairns says the competition has evolved since 250 people took part in the first competition in 1976. "People took it very seriously then," he says. "For example, we had a frisbee throwing heat and they were all standing there with wind gauges.

"I think it was more competitive because there was more company identification. Until about 10 years ago, people working for companies had a very deep loyalty. Then, along came rationalisation and loyalty went out the window and the job for life concept disappeared."

However, loyalty to Computastars still exists. Some people take part year in year out and do a lot of training to prepare themselves. When people feel they are too long in the tooth to carry on competing, many become coaches or "veterans", as Cairns calls them. It is participating that counts.

In fact, Cairns says people need to approach the event with the mentality that it is a fun day out, not that they must win. "People shouldn't come along to win. They should come along to have a crack at everything."

Team spirit is the key to success. Some top athletes have participated in the past and, even though they generally outstrip their fellow contestants in their chosen sport, it is no guarantee that they will win overall.

"We had someone who was part of the Great Britain Olympic running team take part one year. Although she was obviously great at running, there were six or seven other events and she didn't win. The beauty of Computastars is that you need your team - and that is what I wanted," says Cairns.

Each team is made up of five participants, including a team captain, and it is essential that contestants pull together. Even though people don't know what they will be required to do until the day of the competition, there is a strong tactical element to winning, which is why good teamwork is so important.

Cairns says teams find that the whole process does wonders for office politics and staff morale. "It is excellent for team building. Some companies have even used it as a team building exercise. About 10 years ago, one company took 250 people to Amsterdam for the final. It was a company weekend. The director said it was one of the best things they had done."

Cairns gets an enormous amount of enjoyment from the competition. "There is a lot of joy in sport and I love watching people compete. I went to a boarding school where we had to do an hour's compulsory sport a day and you either learned to love it or hate it - I loved it. I was also in the army for nearly three years and found that I was able to retain a reasonable competitive level at every sport I tried," he explains.

However, a couple of serious accidents when he was in his 20s left Cairns unable to play any sport for 10 years. But he came back to it with great enthusiasm.

Cairns has competed in Computastars a couple of times, but found there was a little too much attention and pressure on him from the other entrants. "I had about 200 competitors giving me advice. It was very enjoyable in a perverse sort of a way, but the last time I competed was five or six years ago."

Cairns has given up competing and at some point intends to give up organising the event too. He has a fleet of assistants who run it with him, including his wife Maureen, who also works in IT. "I would hope that someone would step in after me. People tend to identify Computastars with me, which isn't fair, because other people are very involved in it," he says.

Computastars and Cairns are inextricably linked in the minds of many contestants, but with so much support its future is assured.

For more information about Computastars and to register, go to www.computastars.demon.co.uk

Computastars facts

  • Over 40,000 competitors have participated at over 50 venues in the UK and Europe in the last 24 years

  • In 1983, a Computastars team of 14 runners and 15-back up crew raced from John O'Groats to Lands End non-stop. It took them 94 hours to complete the 874 mile route .

  • Famous venues used by Computastars include Crystal Palace, Sheffield Don Valley, FBK in Holland, de Heysel in Brussels and the Rhinestadion in Dusseldorf

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