Yesterday was Kiribati's big day, their first in the Commonwealth Games. The honour of initiation fell to Temwaree Toaare, an 18-year-old with spiky hair and a winning smile who competed in the 62kg category of the weightlifting after a mere three-month crash course in the art. Toaare has only just left high school and, apart from the Micronesian Games, has barely competed outside his own island. "He was mesmerised training with big teams like the English and the Welsh," Ernest Stephen, the national coach, says. "But this is the Commonwealth Games, only the Olympics is bigger."
For some years now, the Islands have been casting around for a sport which would give them the same status in the region as Nauru, an hour's plane ride to the west. Nauru's 15 minutes of fame came with the weightlifting gold medal won by Marcus Stephen eight years ago in Auckland. The fact that Stephen had been trained in Melbourne was incidental. The blue flag with the yellow stripe was raised to the top of the mast and everyone went scuttling to consult their atlases. Kiribati is hoping to follow suit. The training programme - the term is used loosely - has now attracted about 30 lifters under the supervision of Ernest Stephen, Marcus's cousin.
"The beauty is that the people of the islands are naturally built to lift weights," Stephen says. "It's no use having a basketball team if you have no guys who are six feet seven or promoting rugby if you've got no room for pitches. These guys are naturally built for power and weightlifting doesn't take up much room, so it's ideal for us."
Recruitment is simple, if haphazard. "I can be walking along the street and I see a big guy who looks right for lifting and say to him: `Hey, you should come and lift some weights.' Usually, he runs away."
One of the problems is that Kiribatis are a shy people. Another is that there aren't many weights to lift. The one full set in Kiribati was bought secondhand from Australia and is housed in a old shed in the grounds of a disused hospital on South Tarawa, the biggest of the 33 mostly uninhabited islands or atolls. The shed acts as the national training centre. "At least there's no need for a key," Stephen says. "There is no glass in the window, so you can just climb straight in."
Funding is equally insecure. The current government has provided some backing for the programme, but elections this week could mean a shift in power and priorities when the team returns. "We're just hoping we can get the training and the facilities on a more secure footing," says Willy Uan, the head of the Kiribati delegation.
Though the sense of occasion prevented Toaare from lifting his personal best yesterday, he was not disgraced in the same company as Yurik Sarkisian, the former world champion from Australia, and Marcus Stephen.
Stephen, the idol of the South Pacific, further enhanced his image by sweeping golds in snatch, clean and jerk and overall. Because of Stephen, Nauru now has a full Olympic class weight-training development programme, attended by Atantaake Bureka, the heavyweight in the Kiribati team, who decided to take up the sport after seeing a picture of Stephen in a textbook.
While David Morgan of Wales will today aim for a record fifth successive Games gold, Eken Karamaia, the third of the Kiribati team, will harbour the more modest ambition of survival. "We have to start somewhere," his coach says. "Don't forget, this team has created history by just being here."Reuse content