At the start, last night’s opening ceremony for EuroSkills 2014 felt like quite a muted affair — the photographer, film crew and I met competitors from the Metro and after pictures and setting up for the ceremony team members were guided to their seats in the Zenith Arena.
But gradually, as more and more teams took their places, the buzz around the room started to grow, and the mumble of a few thousand people talking to each other began to swell until it reached deafening proportions.
The entire arena was engulfed in waves of chanting and whooping and various instruments — whistles from Team UK, a huge cowbell from the Swiss and a trumpet from the Belgians.
Team UK went from standing around looking uncertain to full-throated cheering — think of a football match but with 25 different teams being supported and you’re probably there.
In between the speeches from the WorldSkills officials, former EuroSkills competitors gave demonstrations, the most impressive of which was a restaurant service guy (whose name I couldn’t catch over the din), who poured out a row of rainbow coloured cocktails, all from the same cocktail shaker.
The host asked him how he’d found the EuroSkills experience. “Give it everything and don’t hold back,” he replied. “WorldSkills competitions completely changed my life.”
And even looking at the competitors on Team UK, waiting to start their first international level competition, you can see that change starting to happen.
Young people who, when I met them at competition just a few months ago were too shy to look me in the eye when being interviewed, were now happily chatting about their skills, their chances and the bizarre mixture of nervousness and confidence they all seemed to be feeling.
Lucy Jones, a 20-year-old restaurant service competitor, told me: “Being here is a bit bizarre, it seemed like it was so far ahead and now its here and that’s really scary.”
But she added: “I feel good, really good about my chances — better than I was expecting to.”
After all the training, the preparation and tension of finding out whether or not they’ve got through, you can see, despite the nerves of the coming competition, the team members starting to realise — “I can do this, I am good at this, I have something to show the world”.
And for any young person poised on the edge of a job market, in an uncertain economy and a society that doesn’t always know how to value their skills, how could that feeling not have a massive impact? How could it not change your life?
The prefect of the local French government, Jean-Francois Cordet, told the assembled crowd: “Its not just about the medals, just by being here tonight, you’re all winners.”
It’s a sentiment that might sound a bit trite, but when you look at the competitors here you realise it is true – even if they don’t come home with a stack of medals, even if they don’t get through to Sao Paulo and next year’s WorldSkills, they have all achieved something massive, and more importantly they will all come away with something.
John Peerless, 22, who’s competing in mechatronics, summed up the general mood among the group, telling me: “I’m really excited to be here – but now I’m just eager to start.”
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Pictured top: Team UK entering the Zenith for the Opening Ceremony.
To view more pictures from the opening ceremony please view the World Skills UK FlickR account.