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Commonwealth Games comment: Let's hear it for the sporting minnows

By The Citizen  |  Posted: August 01, 2014

By Matt Mackenzie

Eddie 'the Eagle' Edwards

Eddie 'the Eagle' Edwards

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International athletics, by its very nature and, often, the vagaries of the wildcard system, has an innate potential to surprise - and, often, to delight - beyond that of most sporting spectacles.

Coming from a nation with not even a negligible tradition of ski-jumping, the Winter Olympics efforts of Gloucestershire’s own Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards garnered praise rather than mockery, although some accused him of disrespecting the sport’s traditions, one Italian journalist referring to him as a ‘ski dropper’.

Criticism of disadvantaged athletes is relatively rare – condescension, less so – but most onlookers are happy to see such competitors have their day in the sun.

Equatorial Guinea’s top-ranked swimmer Eric Moussoumbani Malonga earned himself the sobriquet ‘the Eel’ for his floundering efforts in the pool at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

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Hamadou Djibo Issaka – ‘Issaka the Otter’ – was 2012’s charity case for his super-slow single-sculling.

And during the same Games, Marshall Islands 100m sprinter Timi Garstang finished more than three seconds behind Usain Bolt.

And the crowds this time out have heartily appreciated the efforts of underdogs, none more so than 17-year-old Ntholeng Lechesa, who represented the tiny African nation of Lesotho in squash, whose solitary point against Jamaica's Chris Binne was cheered raucously. It was the first time the teenager has ever played on a glass-backed court.

These athletes have the excuse that their training was rudimentary or even non-existent. They are national champions in their field, albeit by default, generally entering the competitions as wildcards.

Nobody expects anything from them other than failure and a spot of comic relief.

But the disparities in the quality of competitors’ performances come about for the most part due to the athletes in more developed, richer, or simply historically strong in athletics being reared from a young age to compete in their events.

It’s not so much a matter of competence but of opportunity. Sporting success is more or less the corollary of funding and coaching, when combined with talent and effort.

The medal table skewed towards white, Western nations is a barometer of athletic opportunity just as much as it is talent.

By no means does it diminish the achievements of the athletes in question. To rise to the top of any field, particularly on a global level, is an astonishing feat that will be unequalled by all but a tiny minority of individuals worldwide.

It represents the culmination of what essentially amounts to a lifetime of effort.

But for those athletes who come from left-field, and often also through adversity, and to succeed despite this not just in relative but in absolute terms, it is all the more impressive.

The I-Kiribati weightlifter, David Katoatau, won his nation’s first-ever Commonwealth Games medal today in the 105kg category.

It was all the sweeter for it being gold.

A national hero in his homeland, Katoatau was his country’s flag-bearer for both the London 2012 Olympics and these Glasgow games, and was the first-ever I-Kiribati to qualify on merit for the Olympic Games.

He trains in New Caledonia due to a lack of facilities at home.

And he may even be the last I-Kiribati to win a medal of any kind, with the low-lying archipelago of Kiribati – with a population of just over 100,000, smaller than that of Gloucester or Cheltenham – under severe threat from rising sea levels.

It has contributed to one of the most human moments of the Games. We celebrate when our own athletes succeed; it represents national success, a validation of the money spent and methods employed. It is a source of pride.

But what this solitary medal means to one of the world’s poorest nations, possessed of scant natural resources and increasingly reliant on remittances and international development assistance programs, should really be quite affecting.

"I think when I get home we are going to have a big party,” said Katoatau following his victory.

"They're going to be so happy that I am the first man to win a gold medal.

“I can't wait to go back and celebrate. I will dance all night.”

The nation will no doubt join him in doing so.

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