Cleveland Comhrá: Highland Athlete, Doug Steiger

The Ohio Scottish Games and Celtic Festival will take place June 23 and 24 at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds. Competition is the essence of the event. Pipers, pipe bands, dancers, fiddlers and harpists compete with one another showcasing Scotland’s music and culture. But the games originated with the Highland athletic competition. Doug Steiger competes on a professional level and sat down with us to share his passion for the Games.

What is the origin of the Games?
The official history of the games dates back to the 11th century when Scotland had it’s own king, King Malcolm III. It was a time when England still ruled over Scotland, that time frame that was depicted in the Braveheart movie. The king organized the games as a contest in order to pick the most suitable, strongest, military soldiers to protect him and the Royal Family. He wanted the fittest and most athletic soldiers he could find. It took off from there.

Now in Scotland, during the summer months, every local city or community hosts their own games and festivals much like we have here, where many communities have a “Home Days” weekend. I’ve competed in Scotland on two different occasions. I went in 2001 in an amateur contest, which was Scotland vs. USA. I was one of the top six Highland athletes picked to represent the US. Instead of it being an individual contest, we were scored as a team. I was lucky enough to be picked to be part of the team sent there. I was able to participate in five or six games throughout the country with the team.

In 2003 my wife and I went there and were married in a castle. I competed in some games when we were there.

How long have you been competing?
This marks thirty years, I started in 1993. My mother was born and raised in Scotland, and growing up I’d been to the Scottish Games here in Ohio and there’s also a very big one down in Atlanta. We have family there that is involved in the organization of those games. So in ’93 I thought I’d give it a try.

What kind of training did you do to prepare for that?
I didn’t have any experience with the events, but I had competed with the shot put and discus throwing at school, but it had been several years since I’d done any of that.

The games are similar to track and field throwing events. Training is basically, if you can get your hands on the implements and you can get out and practice with them in the off season. It’s olympic style lifting or power lifting moves, it’s not body building, it’s more about core strength and agility. Crossfit types of workouts.

How many events are there?
Traditionally, seven, but there can be as many as ten. The one everyone knows is the caber toss, that’s the one where it looks like you’re trying to flip a telephone pole over. It’s my favorite event and one that I’ve excelled at the most. It’s usually the main event.

How much does the caber weigh?
People ask that all the time. Caber size and weight is determined by the level of competition. Entry level competition uses a smaller, lighter caber. The average professional level caber is sixteen to eighteen foot long and weighs one twenty to one hundred fifty pounds, somewhere  in that range. People also ask how high is it thrown or how far, but what the athlete does is pick it up, balance it and then flip it over looking for a perfect 180 flip and landing.

What are the other events?
The Braemar stone or stone put is a standing throw, using a stone weighing about 26lbs.,the shot put evolved from this. An open stone is a 16lb. stone also thrown for distance. The next two are the heavy weight and the light weight using a steel block or ball weighing 56lbs. and 28lbs. Thrown one-handed for distance. Twenty eight pounds equates to two stone so fifty-six pounds is four stone.

The Scottish style hammer was a precursor to the hammer used in olympic style events. There is a light hammer weighing 16lbs. and a heavy hammer that weighs 22lbs. Usually with a wooden or a pcv handle.

The sheaf toss was traditionally a bale of hay or straw tossed over a bar with a pitchfork for height. Now it’s generally a burlap bag stuffed to simulate a bale of hay. At the amateur level it weighs about 16lbs. and at the professional level it’s around 22lbs.. The last one is a 56lb. weight thrown one handed over a bar for height.

Can you describe the average Highland Athlete?
Some people will come out just to try it, they’ll sign up for a beginner class or event. More and more games are having different levels and drawing more and more competitors. People can be anything from college students to… I know of a few doctors, one friend of mine is a surgeon, he’s been a competitor for years. People from all walks of life basically, there’s no requirement to have any Scottish background or heritage.

A lot of people come from a track and field background, they want to continue competing after they’re no longer with an organized team like in a school or club. Usually once someone trys it they’re hooked from day one.

How many levels will be at the Ohio Scottish Games?
When I started with the Ohio Scottish Games they had two divisions, amateur and professional. Now, they’ve added many more amateur divisions for all levels of experience and interest.

This year we will not have a professional division, that I usually compete in. They’ll have an open division, a masters division, which is for anyone over the age of forty. A woman’s division and a “B” division which will be for people new to the a games.

Sometimes they’ll have a “C” level depending on how many people are interested prior to the event. I believe we’ll have between fifty and seventy athletes competing. Some will be new at their first ever competition and some old and salty guys like me.

I hope you get a chance to see Doug and all of the other competitors and experience a bit of Scottish culture and hospitality at the Ohio Scottish Games and Celtic Festival.

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían, Aisling and Draoi and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]

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