A.S.H. Smyth

Why Falklanders are the ones to watch at the Commonwealth Games

Why Falklanders are the ones to watch at the Commonwealth Games
[Credit: Falkland Islands National Sports Council]
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Stanley, Falkland Islands

I’m not saying the Falklands is a tiny place, but last month, over the course of just a few hours, I had my hair cut by one international athlete and then my passport processed by another. Soon-to-be international athletes, anyway. They’re both part of the Islands’ team for this year’s Commonwealth Games, which is taking place in Birmingham this week.

The youngest, 15-year-old Ben Chater, has not only never competed internationally before, but has only ever played badminton in one place: Stanley leisure centre. (I taught him English for a chunk of last year, so shall be making much of this connection if he ‘podiums’.)

Javier Sotomayor (table tennis – and my barber), moved here more than a decade ago, and has been the Islands’ table tennis champion for four years running. It’s fair to say the Falklands whiff-whaff scene is not enormous – he qualified through the ‘Americas’ (!) regional wildcard system – and 36-year-old Javier’s our solitary men’s player (the same number as produced by Jersey, Kenya and Papua New Guinea).

At 46, the head of the Immigration Dept. Jim Horton (time trial and road race) is not merely making his international debut but is the first cyclist ever to race for the Falkland Islands, which given that there’s maybe 40 miles of tarmac road outside of Stanley is not entirely surprising. Jim actually comes from the Black Country, but now his main fear is that he’ll be spotted riding round his former neighbourhood leaning manically into stiff (but totally imaginary) winds. I taught his son, too, now I think of it.

Ben’s aunt Vicky Chater (badminton again) is the co-owner and manager of my daughter's nursery, and had a (second) child a little over eight months ago. She’ll be competing in the clean sweep of women's singles, women's doubles and mixed doubles. Another badminton player, Doug Clark (fresh in from training camp in Denmark), is the son of one of my most venerable DJing colleagues, a Royal Marine who served here back in 1982. Doug is on his seventh Commonwealth Games, and in his spare time spent eight years as captain of the national football team. 

Badminton player Mike Brownlee carries the Falkland Islands flag at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow [Getty]

Daphne Arthur-Almond (lawn bowls) was one of the first people I met in the Falklands, singing at a one-off evensong in February last year. She’s competed internationally on two occasions: at the World Indoor Bowls Championships in Bristol three months ago, and in 1985, at the Asian Games – for netball.

Garry Tyrell is on his third international sport – after cricket and football – and his claim to fame (until now) is to have been the oldest cup-winning goal-scorer (>40) in the Falklands, after the goalie saved his airborne boot instead of the ball. Primary teacher and team junior Andrea Stanworth had not yet joined them, last I heard (term time). She was a bit concerned about RAF flight delays: there are no ‘lawns’ here in the Falklands – even the Governor’s is inches deep in snow just now – so bowls is played exclusively indoors, on carpet. Andrea may bowl her first ball on grass in the opening round of one of the world’s largest sporting events.

Given the proportion of the population which they represent, what’s perhaps more surprising about the Falklands Commonwealth contingent is how many of them I don’t know. I wonder if 16 competitors out of a civilian population of 3,000 might not itself be notable? By comparison, England would need to send a team of about 275,000. (It's sending 440.)

Also noteworthy is the diverse make-up of the Islands’ contingent. Javier’s originally from Chile, and the March family (badminton x 3) from Saint Helena. Laura Harada (also badminton) has, as she puts it, ‘a Japanese surname and Chinese family heritage’. The backroom staff can add South Africa and Pakistan into the mix.

For the next couple of weeks, though, all of them will be 8,000 miles from the place they now call home. As I write, the team have begun to check in at the athletes’ villages, to be welcomed by their ‘mayor’, champion javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson, and letters of support sent over from the Infant Junior School in Stanley.

In his Christmas message last year, Boris Johnson congratulated the Falklands on being recognised as a full member of the International Table Tennis Federation. But every silver lining has its cloud, and these remarks were met with a torrent of complaints from Buenos Aires, which had – with wearying inevitability – tried to prevent the membership. ‘It says an awful lot,’ remarks the Falklands Chef de Mission, Andrew Brownlee, ‘that the rest of the world are not politicising sport.’

In the run-up to the recent 40th anniversary of the Falklands War, I interviewed a handful of veterans of the Falkland Islands Defence Force. Gerald Cheek, a sergeant on the night of the Argentinian invasion who was subsequently interned by the occupying forces, told me how, in late 1982, he travelled to Australia as the Islands' joint-first Commonwealth Games competitor (in full-bore rifle shooting – somewhat fittingly). They were surprised to find, after the tournament, that they had been under the watchful eye of close protection details throughout – in case, Gerald presumes, our South American neighbours attempted some kind of insane reprisal. But not half as surprised as when they walked into the Brisbane stadium, bearing the Falklands sheep-and-ship flag, to hear the crowd erupt in international, comradely support.

Written byA.S.H. Smyth

A.S.H Smyth is a journalist and radio presenter in the Falkland Islands. He was once selected to play cricket for the national side but couldn’t make it.