In the running

Tuvalu’s going to the Olympics. Alexandros Tsathas spoke to its only athlete

1 – runway - unedited

Exactly halfway between Sydney and Hawaii, nine islands rise from the surface of the Pacific – just – to make Tuvalu. With its highest point 4.6 metres above sea level, it’s one of the lowest-lying countries in the world. But it isn’t only Tuvalu’s elevation that’s exceptional. Its population of 11,000 does not have a single freshwater source to draw from. A significant portion of government revenue comes from leasing the country’s internet suffix: .tv. (This is how it paid for its admission into the United Nations.) Tuvalu’s postage stamps have a cult following among philatelists.

Later this week, over 10,000 athletes from 203 different countries will walk the Maracanã Stadium in Rio for the Opening Ceremony of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.

One of them will be from Tuvalu.

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Sport is big in Tuvalu. Despite its small population (a fifth that of the University of Sydney), national associations exist for athletics, football, volleyball, basketball, boxing, weightlifting, rugby and table tennis. Sprinting and weightlifting are the local specialties. In the two Olympic Games Tuvalu has been competed in, it’s always been in these two disciplines.

Mr. Isala Isala is the Secretary-General of the Tuvalu Association of Sport and National Olympic Committee (TASNOC). Before he held this position, made possible by the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) benevolent fund, he was Tuvalu’s public defender. His thoughtful sentences have a calming quality about them.

Isala is closer to the action than most bearing his title. As he explains over the phone, he’s responsible for the logistical management of the Tuvalu Games (an annual inter-island sports festival) and Tuvalu’s athletes when they compete in regional and international tournaments. He writes TASNOC’s press releases (informing the nation’s single radio station and fortnightly newspaper) and is also his country’s de facto sports minister, overseeing physical education in Tuvalu’s schools.

TASNOC runs on a shoestring annual budget of AU$10,000, so it’s unsurprising that when asked of his role’s biggest challenge, Isala responds “I think it’s finance and facilities, sporting facilities.”

“We only have one sporting field in Tuvalu, and most of the teams train on the runway tarmac. It’s either there or on the beach. Or on the road.” The tarmac he speaks of is the Funafuti International Airport, a converted American World War II landing strip. Sirens sound when an aircraft is approaching.

Official TASNOC results are posted on a Facebook page, and teams’ travelling expenses are variably covered by a government-owned bank or the IOC. I ask about physiotherapists, nutritionists and sports psychologists. “No. We lack all those avenues, all those things. The only support we sometimes use is the church, we use our pastors to come over and give guidance and support to our athletes.”

In Tuvalu, talent identification, which also falls under Isala’s jurisdiction, involves finding excellent sportspeople at one of two secondary schools in the country, or else those who make an impression at the Tuvalu Games.

The latter was the case for Etimoni (Reme) Timuani. He is Tuvalu’s only Rio athlete.

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Reme is a 24 year old father-of-two from Funafuti who works for the Tuvalu National Provident Fund, the national pension scheme. Having played in Tuvalu’s top-flight football league since he was 16, he was called into the national football and futsal teams at 19. He’s a defender, and a man of few words.

Etimoni (Reme) Timuani
Etimoni (Reme) Timuani

At last year’s Tuvalu Games, Reme was the quickest on the football pitch. Isala identified him as having sprinting potential, and Reme made a swift transition into his new, Olympic discipline: the 100m sprint.

He first represented his country at the 2015 Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea. He was disqualified after false starting. “Not good,” he said of that experience. Lessons learned, later in 2015 at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing, he ran 11.72 seconds in his preliminary heat. He showed similar form last month, when he ran 11.77 at the Oceania Melanesian Regional Championships in Fiji.

Reme trains two hours every day on the airport tarmac. He concurs with Isala – “It’s not a good place to train”. Sprinting expertise isn’t easy to come by in Tuvalu, so with his coach, he searches the internet. “Then we just pick a program and we just follow it.”

Reme leaves for Rio on July 30 with his part-time coach, part-time physiotherapist, Isala and TASNOC’s President. It’s a long trip, which will take him “firstly from Funafuti to Nadi (Fiji), Nadi to L.A., then L.A. to Panama, and then to Brazil”.

As Tuvalu’s only athlete, Reme will be its flagbearer. This makes him “very happy”.

He’s also looking forward to his going-away party. “Every time a team goes, there’s always a government function for the community to farewell the athletes before they leave. And also a ceremony when they return,” Isala explains. “I can’t say for sure, but most people on the [main] island attend.”

I didn’t ask about Reme about his chances in Rio. The Olympic Creed begins “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part.” And Reme’s doing just that.