The Humanizing Force of the Big Sky State Games

Impact is a word which conveys depth of influence;  meaningful, life-changing, influence.  And yet the impact of what is arguably Montana’s greatest gathering seemingly goes unnoticed by the many residents of Billings, and Montana.  This impact radiates so far beyond the event itself that the spirit of Montana is both encompassed within in it and influenced by it.

This July, some 10,000 athletes from Montana and surrounding states will compete in Billings in the most powerful collection of events Montana will see, the Big Sky State Games.  The sum exponential impact of the working parts of this festival is woefully unappreciated by the casual observer.  Even some participants may not truly understand the powerful nature of it as its impact truly does not observe the laws of simple cause and effect:  running results in good health; participation results in social benefits; competition results in confidence.  Such conclusions are lacking as the effects of the Big Sky State Games can’t be so simply quantified.  A little too melodramatic?  Give me a chance to explain.

A little history
To understand the vital energy and far reaching impact of the Games on participants and Montana, a bit of history should be discussed.  The power of sport and competition as a critical component of American society is largely misunderstood by society.  Fans see sports as simple yet wonderfully engaging forms of entertainment.  The casual observer dismisses athletic competition as simple minded, brutish, and largely of no social value.  Even to many participants, at all levels, the central impetus for competition is not fully understood, nor the depth of benefits received from athletic engagement appreciated.

Without too much proselytizing, it is a fact, that without sports, the United States would simply not be the greatest nation on earth. This does not speak to the complaints of recent voters, globalists whom cringe at America’s reputation, nor the singed crucibles in America’s history for which criticism is deserved.  This notion instead speaks to the great principles of growth and triumph from which the U.S. has benefited: sport and competition.  These triumphs have little to do with game day victories.

At the turn of the 19th century, decades after the Civil War, the North and South were still two separate nations, in spirit.  Races lived, worked, and played separately.  Rural and urban were divided by ideology.  Women’s athletics were virtually nonexistent.  Children were to be seen and not heard. These socio-cultural divides still have their ghosts, but by and large, they are just that – ghosts.  And the bridges built between those divides are almost exclusively credited with legislation and social movements.  But history is clear: sport and competition has created the greatest and most rugged bridges of unity in the history of our nation, and the world. (please refer to Jesse Owens, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, and Jim Thorpe (among others) for evidence)

Such global benefits are built on the foundation of interpersonal engagements within sport.  Sport and competition reveal our commonalities – amongst races, gender, regions, and individuals. Sport and competition forges friendships across incredible social divides, and even the divides of the mind where many live a life of isolation.  Sport and competition changes lives.  Sport and competition is a “humanizing force.” The incredible social power of athletic games cannot be understated, nor can the incredibly impactful power of Montana’s Big Sky State Games.

The Games
The simplest web header explanation of the Games cannot speak to this incredible force.  But it is a place the start. The Big Sky State Games is an Olympic-style sports festival for people of all ages and abilities whom live in Montana and surrounding states.

Conducted by Montana Amateur Sports, the Big Sky State Games goal is to “provide quality competitions and programs that inspire healthy and active lifestyles for all ages and abilities.”  Founded in 1986 by Tom Osborne, the Big Sky State Games, “Montana’s Olympics”, grew from 12 sports and 3,000 participants to some 35 sports and 10,000 participants each year. It began as a showcase for amateur athletes and has grown into an all-encompassing festival of athletes where an 8 year old or an 80 year old (or older) can participate.  A 100 year old man ran a leg in a relay race at the Games and countless Montanan’s of all ages participate in competition for the first time.  As a member of the National Congress of State Games, which is recognized by the United States Olympic Committee, medalists from Montana get a chance to compete in the State Games of America held every two years (this year in August). Forty states hold games.

Conveying the tremendous impact of the games, which is really the central effort of this article, is best put forth in the Games’ History press release: “The humanizing force of the Games is remarkable.  Everyone has a story and the most interesting could be found in first place, last place or in the volunteer.”

“Sometimes the goal is just getting to the starting line,” related Karen Sanford Gall, the games Executive Director for the past 21 years. It’s those basic principles of sport that are part of the foundation of the social force of the Big Sky State Games. Simple participation to some means huge empowerment to others.  Imagine the impact of developing confidence in one person has on a family, or a business for which they are employed, or a community they are a part of.  As these interpersonal circles are bolstered by the individual, they in turn impact the welfare of ever larger group dynamics.  That is what a humanizing force does.

This impact is seen across time as well. “The Big Sky State Games puts smiles on faces, hope in minds, and faith in hearts.  It brings the folks who call Big Sky Country home together each year – it truly is a family reunion of sport.” – Games History press release. “We’ve seen a lot of generations participate through the years.” Liana Susott, Sports Director of the Games, conveyed.  Entire families gather to compete together, against others, and against each other.  And thus the Games, and the organization tasked with running them, are not simply trying to create competition, they are in fact impacting the wellness of Billings, and Montana.

As elementary schools began cutting athletic programs including cross-country, Montana Amateur Sports established the Yellowstone Elementary School Cross Country meet held in October at Pioneer Park. In 2016, over 1,000 kids participated.  The impact? – the picture on the bottom of page 15 describes it better than words could encompass.

In fact, the Big Sky State Games has given rise to several events and activities coordinated by Montana Amateur Sports including: Shape Up Montana, “a team-based, interactive 2-month team competition and wellness program” held from February 1 to April 1;  Big Sky Fit Kids, “a free activity and nutrition program teaching Montana youth about the importance of being physically active while increasing fruit and vegetable servings”;  Fit Kids Clubs, which requires “that children participate in a total of 90 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week for 2 months”; The Heart & Sole Race Annual 5K, 10K, and 2 Mile Health Walk held during Fathers’ Day weekend which finishes in Dehler Park with the Active Life Festival to promote active families; and Character Counts, a scholarship program “to recognize the importance of sportsmanship and character in Montana student athletes.”

But the marquee festival of Montana Amateur Sports is clearly the Big Sky State Games.  And it has been at the core of Montana competitive sports for over 25 years.  “The games came along at the right time for our community” (on the heels of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics) indicated Karen Sanford Gall.  “The first games were like a Cinderella experience. The Billings community has been terrific to the Games.”

The collection of stories from the games could fill an encyclopedia. The stories and experiences just from the Games’ staff could fill a book as their ardent passion for what they do was evident in our recent interview.  But the point of this article is not to relate any one of those stories.  It is to impart to the reader the sum impact of those stories.  And the images from recent years capture the essence of those stories and their impact on participants (see “the Events infographic, page 16-17).  Our story “cover” image (page 14) of a little girl with a participant number on her back riding down a long road toward the sun may actually best summarize the entire concept of the Games “impact.”


A goal toward which to train and prepare; a starting line from which to launch aspiration; a finish line through which a sense of achievement is realized. All of which are held against the backdrop of inclusion in a festival atmosphere where a common endeavor binds people from all walks of life, blind of socioeconomic background and history.  The experience and joy gained is exported by these individuals to their families and communities.

The seriousness of all these assertions shouldn’t undermine the simple fun the Games provide.  And it is a blast!  The Summer Games start with the Soaked Run, “a non-timed two mile crazy fun water walk/run around and through Pioneer Park. All ages, slow or fast, are encouraged to participate. Be prepared to run through foam stations, slip and slide down the hill, jump through sprinklers, and dodge water guns in this fun filled race.” Lifeguards are on-duty – seriously!  One past participant, Jason Nafts, told MoFi that no matter what, “You can guarantee the Games will be held on the hottest days of the summer,” which in part is why the Soaked Run was created.

Though the opening ceremonies and torch lighting along with Track and Field are held at Daylis Stadium in Pioneer Park, the 35 events plus countless sub-categories within those events take place at various venues throughout Billings which donated their space for the games. “Our biggest sport is Basketball where we have about 2,000 participants” related Susott, but each of the Summer events draws athletes from across Montana and neighboring states.  The Spring Games, which are smaller, garner large numbers of participants as well including some 500-700 athletes in Dance competitions as well as competitors in Hockey, Figure Skating, and Curling.

The Games, which rely on donor support and the dedication of thousands of volunteers, have been a staple of the Billings community.  According to Sanford Gall, “The reason why the Games are successful is because of our sponsors and the volunteers.  Each sport has an expert to manage the event – they really know who the athletes are and how to run the event.”  Key donor support for the Games comes from Kampgrounds of a America (an original supporter in 1986), First Interstate Bank, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana and Wendy’s.

The Games boast the largest per capita participation rate in the nation and ranks among the largest in number of sports held in all state games. They’ve also received tremendous acknowledgments in years past including recognition by the National Congress of State Games for best poster and best website (years past) of all state games.  They’ve also received recognition from the Billings Chamber and the Montana Action for Healthy Kids.

Their impact – their depth of influence – goes well beyond the spirit of competition and fitness.  The bridge it spans between divides of all types in the State, within our community, and within the divide of an individual’s self-doubt, is astounding. In many respects, the Big Sky State Games are the essence of what Montana stands for, and in turn, feeds the vital spirit of our state.  They are a “humanizing force.” Sport and competition is a wellness activity that establishes confidence, creates life-long friendships, impacts our communities, and leaves participants with a grin on their faces.  And you can compete too.  Visit their website for details:  If you’re not up for it this year, then come by one of the many events of the Big Sky State Games being held this July 14th through the 16th and experience the impact of the Games first hand. Whether participating, volunteering, or watching as a spectator, once you experience it, its impact will become evident.

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