Way back in the early 1990s, Torbay Sports Council accepted an ‘Inter-Town Sporting Challenge’ from Restormel in Cornwall.
The challenge was featured in a global sports paper, and, soon afterwards, Torbay received an invitation to repeat the exercise in St Malo, northern France.
In 1997, we took 85 competitors across the channel to compete in seven sports and won 4-3. In 1999, St Malo returned the visit, bringing 58 young people to Torbay, to challenge us in six sports.
After a thrilling two days, and a 3-3 result, Torbay won again, after a basketball shoot-out!
The organisers were becoming old friends, and our young sports stars were getting ‘international’ experience!
Both towns agreed that it should become an annual event.
The two Sports Councils agreed that the 2000 event would be special, and on Friday, June 2, more than 200 gathered at Clennon Valley to be taken by coach to Poole for the ferry crossing.
There were 144 competitors - including 60 under-16s - to challenge in 12 sports: badminton, basketball, fencing, women’s football, boys’ football, judo, rowing, rugby, squash, tennis, swimming and table tennis.
St Malo had reserved ten venues for the event, and our competitors would be housed in a hotel, a youth hostel, and a girls’ boarding school, which was empty during school holidays. What a prospect!
Our hosts had pulled out all the stops for us, the two town mayors had exchanged letters, and Torbay Council had chipped in with some financial support.
The coaches to Poole were full of excited youngsters anticipating their first Channel crossing.
At that time, Torbay Sports Council had a French-speaking committee member, John Bachellier, and he had helped me to arrange the whole adventure.
As we watched the ferry leave port, John and I, who followed in our own cars, mused: “This is what sport is all about. Young people going to new places, making new friends, and maximising their abilities.”
We arrived in the historic walled town of St Malo early that evening, and were taken to our accommodation.
The next day was the first competition day, and the sunshine greeted us as we made our way to the local conference centre for the welcome ceremony.
After the speeches, each competitor was taken to one of the ten venues, and the Sporting Challenge was underway.
Being a retired sportsman has its compensations, and with the youngsters out of the way, the famous French bonhomie became evident!
The Torbay officials were taken to St Malo castle, where a sumptuous buffet lunch was laid out for the organisers. Fresh seafood was chased down by the local Shiraz, and, very soon, laughter and hugs made language differences seem irrelevant.
After lunch, the officials were escorted to each venue, and by the end of the day, we were all celebrating a narrow Torbay victory.
The trophy was presented on the Sunday morning, in the ancient town hall, and, soon after lunch, local coaches took the successful Torbay team back to the ferry port.
But then, all of a sudden, just as we were stood with our French hosts, waving goodbye to the last coach, the day turned into a nightmare!
I was standing next to the mayor of St Malo when a woman rushed up to him. Sensing that she was in an emotional state, I turned away to allow them privacy.
Moments later, he tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Mr Mann, I have some bad news!” One of his colleagues then explained that the boarding school had been trashed!
Wash basins had been wrenched from the walls, and many of the girls’ private studies had been wrecked. Family photos had been stamped on, and broken glass was everywhere. What could I say? I just remember putting my head in my hands and wishing that I was somewhere else! Why? Why? Why? I asked myself a thousand times.
In the weeks that followed, it transpired that a group of our under-16s, all from one club, had succumbed to drink on the Saturday night. The story was hushed up, and the club concerned agreed to compensate the school.
Our Inter-Town Sporting challenges died that day, and we never heard a word from St Malo again.
Sport can be so uplifting, but so utterly disappointing too!