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Sea voyages, rabbits and a 189-year-old tortoise – the story of sport in St Helena

By Dan Palmer

When the British needed somewhere remote for the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte – a place from where return was impossible – they opted for St Helena.

The rocky, volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean is one of the most isolated places on earth, and home to a population of just 4,500 people.

An airport only opened on St Helena in 2017, meaning the residents, and the island’s Commonwealth Games team, were completely dependent on ships.

When travelling to Glasgow 2014, it took the squad 11 days to reach the Scottish city, starting with a voyage to Cape Town and then two flights via Amsterdam.

Their epic trip was the subject of a BBC documentary and when they arrived they received a hero’s welcome.

“Five days on a ship is like 10 days on land as time goes really slowly,” said Nick Stevens, the President of the St Helena Commonwealth Games Association (SHCGA), to insidethegames.

“It was four star hotel facilities, cabin and dining and so on.

“It was quite small, and you’ve got to try and occupy the team.

“There was a really small gym, probably two metres by three metres, and a small swimming pool.

“The swimmer that was travelling, it was one stroke and he was across the pool.

“We couldn’t actually train on board as such.”

The ship, the RMS St Helena, no longer serves the island.

“It was comfortable travel and it was part of our DNA at the time,” said Stevens. “It’s been a huge loss, but having the airport does make things easier.”

For Birmingham 2022, St Helena has selected an 11-strong team in athletics, badminton and swimming.

Stevens, who has been President of the CGA since 2014, will carry out the team’s Chef de Mission work until the eve of the Games in July before passing over to Michelle Yon.

The squad will fly to Johannesburg and spend the night there before boarding another plane to London Heathrow, and will take part in an 18-day training camp in Cheltenham after arriving in England.

This will be a key period of preparation for the team, as St Helena only has basic sports facilities. 

“We’ve got a swimming pool that’s 33 metres long, an outdoor pool,” said Stevens. 

“It has blocks but we have to put them in and out whenever the swimmers want to use them. They need to be installed and then uninstalled at the end.

“The running track is a grass track at the only sports field we have on the island. That is in really bad shape at the moment, there’s puddles, it’s dug up by rabbits…

“That’s why the pre-Games training camp is important for our athletes to develop. That will be the only chance prior to the Games to run on a proper track or swim in a 50 metre pool.”

St Helena does not receive Government funding for sport so fundraising is essential, but this is not easy when so few people live on the island.

One of the reasons Stevens will be passing on Chef de Mission duties is so he will have time to network and attempt to find more investment.

“We’re looking to improve our sporting infrastructure here on the island,” he said. “The only way we can do that is to obtain external funding. 

“We are constantly contacting organisations like FIFA, and so on, to try and help with being able to develop our facilities.”

St Helena also competes at the Island Games, which it has to fund itself, but with the Commonwealth Games there are grants to cover all costs.

Even this has been a problem with Birmingham 2022, however, after flights from the airport were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Services are due to resume next month, but initially there will only be fortnightly departures to Johannesburg instead of the usual weekly trips.

“This doesn’t correspond with our travel plans, so we have to leave a week earlier and return a week later,” said Stevens, who also heads up the island’s Football Association.

“That has an impact on the grants that we receive for our pre-Games training and travel. 

“We’re fundraising now as we’re short about £8,000 ($11,000/€9,500).”

In 2019, a remarkable £70,000 ($95,000/$84,000) was raised in nine months to take a football team to Wales, for what was St Helena’s first international tournament.

But it’s not just investment that the island can gain from its trips overseas, as mingling with the powerhouse nations also leads to invaluable knowledge which can improve performances on the field.

“Being able to form relationships with officials from some of the bigger CGAs is a big thing,” said Stevens. 

“My son has been travelling with the team since 2014 and has made good friends with athletes from Jamaica and so on, and they correspond with him. 

“There’s so much we’ve learned from coaches of bigger nations. It’s not only athletes who can learn, it’s people like ourselves who get help from UK based countries or other big nations.

“We can take that knowledge back to the island to improve our future athletes. So that’s key.” 

For Stevens, networking has not come better than meeting sprint superstar Usain Bolt. The pair presented the medals for the women’s 200 metres together at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.

“He came into the call room when we were waiting to go down,” Stevens said.

“I started a conversation with him and said ‘you know, we’ve got something in common, we’re both Manchester United fans’.

“So we talked Manchester United until we went out to present the medals.”

Football is popular in St Helena, and England’s Premier League especially. All of the matches are shown live, including the 3pm kick-offs on a Saturday which are subject to a television blackout in the UK.

Stevens, who said he was “frustrated” by United’s current displays, dedicates his life to sport on St Helena.

The island first competed at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982, but was then absent for 16 years until returning at Kuala Lumpur 1998.

They have been ever-present since then and have regularly sent shooters to the Games, a sport which will not be on the programme this year.

The Birmingham squad is a mixture of athletes who were born in St Helena or have family links to the island.

Some history will be achieved in Birmingham, including the first female swimmers to depart for the Games from St Helena itself.

Caroline Lawrence, who swam in Brisbane, is from Ascension Island, which is around 800 miles from St Helena but part of the same British territory alongside Tristan da Cunha.

Aiden Yon-Stevens, Nick’s son, will compete in the 400 metres in Birmingham as the first athletics competitor to be born in St Helena.

Sprinter Sean Crowie, who raced over 100m and 200m at Gold Coast 2018 and has been selected again, is based in England.

At Melbourne 2006, Errol Duncan ran his first marathon at the age of 45. The runner from Ascension received a huge reception from the crowd and high-fived spectators before coming home as the last of the 14 athletes who finished the race. He was nearly 20 minutes slower than his nearest rival.

The island’s isolation does come with its advantages as no COVID-19 cases have been recorded in the local community.

This means the wave of measures likely to be in place at Birmingham 2022 to deter coronavirus infections will be something of a culture shock.

“That’s the biggest issue we’ve got,” said Stevens. 

“We haven’t used masks, we haven’t had to social distance. 

“So that will be something new for the team. 

“We had a meeting with athletes and we said the risk of us contracting COVID is pretty high when we arrive in the UK. 

“We put out all the risks which are there. Living like you guys have been living in the UK for the past two years will be alien for our team.” 

The isolation also means that the Queen’s Baton Relay was celebrated enthusiastically when it arrived in St Helena in December.

For Gold Coast 2018, the Relay could not visit because of issues with the airstrip, so for Birmingham they made up for lost time.

Included on the itinerary was a trip to see Jonathan, a 189-year-old giant tortoise believed to be the oldest living land creature in the world. 

The baton was also taken to Diana’s Peak, the highest point on the island, and up Jacob’s Ladder, a steep 699-step staircase which ascends up the cliffs from the capital Jamestown.

It was also taken out to sea and then underwater to the wreck of the SS Papanui, while every school pupil on the island had the chance to interact with the baton.

St Helena is currently enjoying whale shark season, with its marine life a popular attraction for both tourists and locals.

“The sea is warm and safe,” said Stevens.

Subsidies from the British Government are key, while industries to complement tourism include tuna and coffee.

Stevens, who has been part of the CGA since 2008, was Chef de Mission at Gold Coast 2018 and general team manager at Glasgow 2014.

As with all small teams, the Opening Ceremony will be a particular highlight for the island in Birmingham but there are fears family members won’t be able to secure seats to watch their relatives in action.

Birmingham 2022 will be shown in St Helena, which receives South Africa’s SuperSport channels, although internet speeds can be slow.

“Isolation does come with challenges, travel is an issue,” Stevens, who runs a local youth club, said.

“The cost of living is expensive, food is expensive. 

“But then there’s the freedom for the young people to live free from crime, and free from COVID.

“My car is parked in the street and I don’t lock my car. The windows in my house are open.

“Christmas is always fantastic here on the island as St Helenians make an effort to come back, the population increases and everyone has a great time.

“The weather is great all year round, it doesn’t get too hot and it doesn’t get too cold.

“So there are a lot of good things.”

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