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Bowls in a school corridor: Commonwealth Games passion in the Falkland Islands

By Dan Palmer

You would be hard pushed to find a team more enthused about the Commonwealth Games than the Falkland Islands.

The tiny archipelago at the foot of South America is home to a little more than 3,000 people but, according to their Birmingham 2022 Chef de Mission Andrew Brownlee, they live and breathe the movement.

“The Falklands are just so pro-Commonwealth, and it always makes us smile when we get all the useful correspondence from the host city on trying to generate interest,” Brownlee tells insidethegames

“They are pushing not just against an unlocked door, but against a wide open door which never closes. 

“The Falklands embrace everything that’s Commonwealth, both in the schools and all the sports clubs, especially those that take part in the Commonwealth Games. 

“We’re just so into the whole Commonwealth thing, it is massive.” 

For athletes representing the Falkland Islands, the Commonwealth Games is the grandest stage for them to compete.

It is hoped that a team of around 30 will be sent to Birmingham 2022, in sports including badminton, road cycling, lawn bowls, table tennis and triathlon.

In table tennis, it is hoped that the Falklands will be able to select their first ever Para-athlete.

“It is the pinnacle of their sporting careers to be able to represent their country at the Commonwealth Games, which are so special and so different and better in so many ways than the Olympic Movement,” said Brownlee, who has recently retired after 38 years with the Falkland Islands Defence Forces.

“Because it’s far more personal and not just another generic international sporting event. 

“The Commonwealth has still got that uniqueness that we really treasure.

“Our main teams and sportsmen and women, they kind of never really stop. 

“It all seems to morph nicely from one Games to the next, and especially on the sports management side.

“Our other big multi-sport event is the Island Games, it’s a never-ending cycle.” 

The Falkland Islands has never won a Commonwealth Games medal and sent 15 athletes last time to Gold Coast 2018.

Ten of these were shooters, but the sport has been left off the Birmingham 2022 programme which is viewed as a blow.

“It’s a huge disappointment actually,” Brownlee, who has served as Chef de Mission at four previous Commonwealth Games and one Commonwealth Youth Games, said. “Shooting was the first ever sport that we took part in, and the Falklands has a very long tradition in shooting.

“The Falkland Islanders start to shoot at a very early age. It’s one of those sports that is relatively inexpensive to get into. 

“Facilities wise, it’s not too onerous to set up. It’s a traditional sport and it was a huge disappointment that Birmingham won’t host it. 

“Bearing in mind that they’ve got Bisley an hour and 15 minutes away, it would have been an easy one to organise I would have thought, but I understand there were a few issues.

“We are where we are and we are very grateful for Birmingham, who have had less than four years to prepare. I’m sure they are going to put on a spectacular Games.”

India, a Commonwealth Games superpower, vocally protested the absence of shooting.

The country was due to host a separate Commonwealth Archery and Shooting Championships in Chandigarh, but the event has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 has been an issue in the Falkland Islands but not to the same extent as elsewhere.

The badminton team may have to cancel a training camp in Denmark next year, but at home life is continuing

“It certainly scuppered our athletes being able to take part in international events,” Brownlee, whose son Mike competed in badminton at the 2010 and 2014 Games, and carried the flag at the latter, said. 

“Locally not, because we don’t have COVID within the community. The handful of cases we have had were caught during our strict quarantine regime. 

“Life in that respect has been normal for athletes but it’s just been in-house stuff. 

“We did host the Falkland Games which was great fun. We had four teams and it was a random selection from our sporting fraternity. 

“They took part in about 10 different sports, ranging from netball to hockey and great competitiveness was shown. 

“There were a lot of injuries, they don’t hold back our guys! We were able to hold that so it was a morale booster and a nice bit of community spirit in these difficult times.” 

Limited facilities and challenges with funding are ever-present issues for Falkland Islands athletes.

“The lawn bowls club have to set up their mats in a long corridor in the senior school, they haven’t got their outdoor facility yet,” Brownlee, who also serves as a firefighter, said. 

“The resourcefulness of all the sports is quite incredible. If you had prima donnas they just wouldn’t train, but the Falklands athletes and the Falklands people are very resourceful and they have a ‘can do’ attitude.

“They think ‘okay, we might not have a Grade-A facility, but we’ve got this, it’s better than nothing’. 

“So they crack on and make the best of what they’ve got. And that kind of typifies the Falklands mentality. If we haven’t got something we’ll make it, or we’ll adapt something.

“We do have some corporate sponsors we’re incredibly grateful for, and the Falkland Islands Government as well. 

“Athletes often have to dip into their own pocket, that just shows their dedication to the sport. I bet there would be a lot of athletes from bigger countries, if you said ‘you’ve got to pay towards some of this’, they would look at you twice and not be too happy.

“The National Sports Council has recently been given the task of project managing the building of a new sports facility with an all-weather multi-sport pitch.

“We’ve finalised the concept for the design and we’re hoping by early next year the diggers will be in and that will be underway.” 

At present, the only way to reach the Falkland Islands from Britain is an 18-hour flight via the Royal Air Force, with a fuel stop in Dakar in Senegal.

The Queen’s Baton Relay is scheduled to make the journey next year, with Brownlee describing people in the Falklands as “true monarchists”. 

“It’s always a fun few days,” he said. “It gets taken to the hospital, it gets taken out to the remote settlements where people can come and have their picture taken and have their moment with the Queen’s baton.”

He added: “It’s a great privilege and an honour to be able to take part in such a prestigious event as the Commonwealth Games.

“It’s one of the proudest moments you’ll ever have, walking out at the Opening Ceremony behind your country’s flag. 

“Even thinking about it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”

 

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