Saturday, December 19, 2015

Celebration: Portuguese Orienteering Federation blows out 25 candles

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you... On the day that Portuguese Orienteering Federation celebrates 25 years of existence, it is towards Portugal that we turn our attention, recovering a text originally published in the IOF's newsletter 02/2014 [HERE] and now updated.

In this big world of orienteering, Portugal is not only the small and beautiful country where the sun shines and produces warmth in winter and where, in Carnival mode, the Portugal O' Meeting takes place; add to this the huge variety of terrain and the many training camps for all tastes and sizes. Combine the organisational capacity of the clubs, the quality of the mappers and course planners, the willingness of the athletes and the hospitality of the Portuguese people, and you have a cocktail of ingredients able to attract thousands of orienteers from around the world to the Portuguese forests every year.

The day when the Portuguese Orienteering Federation celebrates its 25 years, we make appointment with the history of orienteering in this “garden by the sea”. Camilo de Mendonça, Higino Esteves and Augusto Almeida, three of the five Presidents that Portuguese Orienteering Federation has had until the present day, join us on a fascinating journey of four decades, helping us to understand the era between the pioneer moments of the 70s and 80s and the moment of blowing the 25 candles.

Once upon a time...

Nobody knows for sure when orienteering came to Portugal. It is recognised, however, that it was in the military environment that it was first tried, there remaining over the years in an apparent limbo, unable to overcome the thick and dark walls of the barracks and get out to the public in general.

The first sure records about an orienteering event in Portugal are from 1973 and the first Armed Forces National Championships, held in Mafra, near Lisbon. But it is in the early 80s that orienteering in Portugal changed direction, giving rise to the welcome process of “demilitarisation”. It is around this time that the first contacts with civil society were established and the first proper orienteering maps were made public and accessible to all.

Camilo de Mendonça, the first President of the Portuguese Orienteering Federation, remembers those pioneering times: “What I remember the most were the numerous training and dissemination activities carried out throughout the country, and the contact with people coming from many different age groups and professional backgrounds. They ran at the time as eager pioneers to disclose the sport to a population that has embraced it enthusiastically”, he says.

Running and orienteering”, an inconvenient concept

Coming from an activity known as “running and orienteering”, orienteering as we knew it first had to fight a battle to withdraw from its original name the word “running”, something that could eventually demotivate those who didn’t like to run and also cutting out the numerous possible other disciplines, including people with disabilities or those wishing to practice it by bike or on horseback.

Starting in 1985 several experts, especially from Sweden, came to Portugal to co-operate in teaching and mapping. This initiative involved the creation of infrastructures for the reception of training groups that would come to Portugal in a mix of tourism and orienteering. It proved highly successful, because on these groups were some world-class athletes who participated in the races. And two particular visitors, Sven Kinborg and Rolf Anderson, were professional cartographers whose work resulted in the preparation of maps all over the country.

Peo Bengtsson, the “father” of Portuguese orienteering

The collaboration and the immense interest of the IOF helped in the work of spreading the sport and monitoring the process of evolution. The foundation of the Portuguese Orienteering Federation, on November 19th 1990, and the consequent accession of Portugal to the IOF as a full member, turned out to be the logical corollary of the whole process. “It was a time when we overcame all the difficulties, motivated by the ideal of seeing the birth and growth of orienteering,” recalls Camilo de Mendonça.

In addition to the investment in staff training abroad, the tourist visits based on orienteering and the consequent organisation of “international” events eventually attracted the attention of the media and led to orienteering becoming known by the public in general. The great promoter of “tourism orienteering”, Peo Bengtsson, is considered by many as the “father” of orienteering in Portugal. Other major developments also occurred, in particular visits of teams from various countries such as Sweden, Switzerland and Finland.

It is also around this time that Anne Braggins, accompanied by several personalities from different countries, carried out some demonstrations of Trail Orienteering in Portugal. The organisation of the first Iberian Orienteering Championships, in 1992, was another important step towards the promotion of relations with Spain, not only based on the competitive aspects but also through holding clinics in several areas.

All parents can look back on the enjoyment of the early years of their children”

In 1994 Camilo de Mendonça came to the end of his term as President. They were years of intense dedication to a cause at the expense of almost everything else, and he felt it was time for the sport to move to a new phase in its life. That moment came naturally and orienteering went on its way with Higino Esteves, a man who had accompanied Camilo de Mendonça for some time and who was, at the time, the solution of natural continuity.

Camilo de Mendonça and his last words: “I think the way we devoted ourselves from the first moment (whilst recognising the sacrifices that we subjected our families to and the damage caused to our careers), the financial resources that we applied in the project and especially all our effort and enthusiasm, all contributed to the rapid development of orienteering.”

“This is the feeling that we all have, and for us a still more rewarding reason. All parents can look back on the enjoyment of the early years of their children. Watching them grow and make blunders, educating them for better or worse, it’s all part of the pro­cess. They have their genes, and the records are always there to remember. They gain autonomy, they mature, they generate a larger family, but are always our children! I don’t believe any parents repent of having generated something.”

Higino Esteves, the second President

When in March 1994 Higino Esteves accepted the responsibility to hold the destinies of the Portuguese Orienteering Federation, the great challenge was to amplify the promotion of the sport within the general public, especially in schools, and to develop orienteering as a sport, with quality events that appealed to practitioners from all over the country. Thus appeared the first National Orienteering Championships (today known as the Portugal Cup), with a set of events supported by the Portuguese Federation in order to raise the organisational quality.

Higino Esteves recalls: “The early days were very difficult. We needed an office, a phone, a fax, a computer, a full-time technician, an administrative service, a car painted in white and orange...”
In March 1995 the Portuguese Orienteering Federation’s first Head Office was set up in Mafra, in the same place where it would work uninterruptedly for seventeen years. “It was an important moment, coinciding with the organisation of the Mafra O’ Meeting which was attended by the IOF’s then Secretary General, Lennart Levin as well as the Directors of the Portuguese orienteering clubs – I think at that time there were already 14 (!) - and several representatives of national sports bodies. The Federation now operated as a sports federation, in fact in the service of all practitioners, and most of all for potential practitioners.”

A place on the map

Among the highlights of the eight years that he was at the helm of the Portuguese Orienteering Federation, Higino Esteves recalls his participation in the IOF Congress, in July 1996 in Jerusalem, where he promoted his application for being an IOF Board member, as well as the application for the organisation in 1998 in Portugal of the IOF’s Congress commemorating the orienteering centenary and also the application for the organisation in Portugal of the final round of the 2000 World Cup. Despite the hard battle with some of the major powers in our sport, it was with excitement that he witnessed the success of all three applications. Higino Esteves was the first Latin to sit on the IOF’s Council and Portugal won, in short, a place on the orienteering world map.

Another highlight relates to the foundation of the Brazilian Orienteering Confederation on January 11th 1999, a ceremony in which Higino Esteves was present on behalf of the IOF but of course also as President of the Portuguese Orienteering Federation. Also the victory of Joaquim Sousa in the Latin Countries Cup in October 1999 was the first major international result in the Elite category, at a time when Portugal was still in an embryonic stage in development of the project for Elite Competition.

And we cannot forget the Portugal O’ Meeting which began in 1996. When in 2002 Higino Esteves left the Portuguese Orienteering Federation’s destinies to his successor, his mood was of satisfaction for the accomplishments achieved and full confidence in the future of orienteering. “I had the privilege of working with a team of giants. As people, as sports officials, as orienteering athletes”, he concludes.

To take care of finances

In 2002 the economic and financial situation of the Portuguese Orienteering Federation was anything but comfortable. For Augusto Almeida, the man who succeeded Higino Esteves in the lead of the institution, the challenge was to restore the needed cred­ibility: “In my way of seeing things, it is unthinkable to live beyond the financial capability of any citizen or institution. Hence the first concern had to do with the resolution of the financial troubles and then restoring the good name of the Federation with the strategic partners – local authorities, the army, the Institute of Sport”, he recalls.

This mission was accomplished, and so it was time to face a new phase in the Federation’s life with the creation of measures focusing on youth, either through facilities in the affiliation process or in supporting teams who work with young people. Quickly the number of young participants grew from a few dozen to many hundreds, and with visible results both nationally and internationally.
In 2007, Portuguese orienteering enjoyed the first gold medal in its history, won by Diogo Miguel at the European Youth Orienteering Championships in Hungary. In the following year, Vera Alvarez won the gold medal in the World Schools Orienteering Championships in Scotland.

World Masters Orienteering Championships 2008: a milestone

During the presidential term of Augusto Almeida, the 2008 World Masters Orienteering Championships is an indispensable reference point. The interest of the Portuguese Government and its commitment to support the event, along with good preparation and homework well done, were determinants. The final result was fantastic and none of the nearly 3,500 participants from around the world proved to be indifferent to the quality of the event. Augusto Almeida reveals the secret of success: “Our sport spins in the strict sphere of volunteering. Indeed we have very good people, people where everything they do, they do perfectly. There is an outlook towards very positive, sustained work that makes the results appear. There are many people working towards the same goal and that makes for great, consistent and rigorous application”, he concludes.

The first decade of the new millennium ended with the organisation in Portugal of another great event. Indeed, the World MTB Orienteering Championships held in 2010 in Montalegre, in the north-east of the country, resulted in a week of intense competition at the highest level. The event was sadly marked by a serious injury suffered by the Czech Republic athlete Hana Dolezalova, but once again the quality and organisational capacity of Portugal was strengthened.

It is also at this time that Portuguese Trail Orienteering re-emerged in an organised and consistent manner, based mostly on the work done within the DAHP – the Adapted Sports Centre of Prelada Hospital. And a word for the establishment on November 26th 2007 of the Orientovar, the Portuguese orienteering blog that quickly established itself as a true platform of convergence for orienteers world-wide.

Economic crisis hangs evolution process

In recent years one can see that there has been increased attention given to Portugal and its orienteering. Maybe not so much for the athletes’ results – although Davide Machado has reached 7th place in IOF’s MTB orienteering ranking, and presence in the World Orienteering Championships A-Finals is now much more common – but more especially for the quality of its organisation. And here the Portugal O’ Meeting emerges as an authentic flag of the sport in Portugal, especially since 2007. Year after year, the number of foreigners who attend the country around the Carnival days is increasing, getting the best out of both the competitions and the favourable weather conditions at that time of year, and the many training camps that are on offer.

In terms of membership, Portugal has now 2284 affiliated in the Portuguese Orienteering Federation, with 145 new members entered in 2015 so far. But the numbers are not more than numbers, and the reality is that the numbers of Portuguese participants on the courses organised week after week all over the country have been decreasing, as a result of the country’s very punitive economic situation. At least, this is the opinion of Augusto Almeida: “If we remember that since 2003 our society has been losing purchasing power, in many cases in a quite dramatic way, it is easy to realise that, in times of containment, people have to cut out what is secondary. And this is the fundamental reason for the poor adherence to current events and to the sport. Fortunately, in the case of youngsters the situation is less acute. The clubs that work with the training offer good conditions, providing support for the various costs. But as soon as the socio-economic conditions of the people improve, we will see a new ´boom´ appearing almost immediately”, he says with optimism.

New and larger challenges

2013 was another remarkable year for the level of organisation in Portugal. First it was the World Schools Orienteering Championships and later the European Youth Orienteering Championships, and then the final round of the MTB Orienteering World Cup as well as the World Masters MTB Orienteering Championships that brought to Portugal orienteers from all over the world. In 2014, Portugal hold in Palmela and Sesimbra de European Orienteering Championships and the European Trail Orienteering Championships. In 2015, MTBO returned to Portugal with the European Championships and the World Master Championships. In 2016 it will be time for receiving again, this time at Bairrada region, the World MTB orienteering Championships and still the first round of the Unofficial European Cup in Trail Orienteering in Lisbon. Last but not least, Portugal was appointed for organizing the World Trail Orienteering Championships, in Viseu, in 2019.

Only very sporadically now do we hear the question “What is it orienteering?” The competitive level of our athletes in various disciplines is growing exponentially. 2015 is a very good example of that, with Luis Gonçalves and Inês Domingues reaching, in Croatia, the 6th and 7th places in the TempO Final of the World Trail Orienteering Championships. The challenges are always great, because the organisational level already achieved is quite high and still evolving very positively. Above all there is concern about “democratising” the importance of the various disciplines. Foot orienteering, Trail orienteering, Adapted orienteering, Adventure Racing, MTB orienteering and, in 2016, also Rogaining, are disciplines that, irrespective of their various merits, deserve equal attention for a sustained growth.

Joaquim Margarido

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