By Dan Palmer
The Commonwealth Games is a rare chance for athletes from non-Olympic nations to rub shoulders with the very elite of sport.
When Gibraltar’s triathlete Chris Walker raced at Glasgow 2014, he did so against a field which included England’s dominant Brownlee brothers.
Challenging for a medal was never on the agenda, but he could not simply enjoy the race and the experience of competing on a grand stage.
A controversial rule – which was axed four years later in Gold Coast after being deemed as unfair – was in place and stipulated that any athlete who was lapped on the cycling leg would have to drop out.
This meant there was intense pressure on those from smaller teams who faced the challenging test of avoiding being caught by Alistair Brownlee, the London 2012 Olympic champion, and his brother Jonny who had bagged bronze.
In the end, only 27 triathletes reached the finish line as 14 were lapped and eliminated.
Walker, however, passed the test and was the only amateur to finish. Alistair Brownlee won gold with his brother second, but the man from Gibraltar likely felt as good as them as he came home.
“We had Alistair and Jonny Brownlee on fire, they absolutely annihilated the field and the bike was five laps,” said Walker, now the Gibraltar Chef de Mission for Birmingham 2022, to insidethegames.
“We knew there was a good chance you’d get lapped. They basically broke off the front and demolished the whole field.
“The race turned out to be swim as far as you can for 1500 metres, and then cycle your heart out for four laps because once you got through the fourth lap, you were safe.
“The crowd that day, they realised what was happening. When I came down the hill to the finish line, they were so supportive that I felt like I’d won.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it. When the top athletes say the crowd gave them an extra push, I honestly experienced it there. This wave of support literally carried me to the finish line. It was a really special moment.”
Walker, who was remarkably 47 at the time, had the chance to speak with Alistair, who went on to defend his Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016.
“He said ‘well done to you mate for staying ahead of us,'” Walker said. “He was great. He said they’d both agreed to go 100 per cent from the swim start, and if anyone stayed with them, great for them.”
Glasgow was Walker’s fourth Commonwealth Games, and he would add a fifth appearance aged 50 in Gold Coast, where the scrapping of the rule meant everyone finished.
His debut came at Manchester 2002, where he lined up alongside Canada’s Olympic champion Simon Whitfield at the start.
The sport was making its maiden Games appearance, just two years after it debuted at the Olympics in Sydney where Whitfield won gold.
This newness did not stop the people in Manchester flocking to watch, however.
“We were totally unprepared for the scenes we experienced when we walked out of the tent and were called down to the pontoon,” Walker said.
“There were tens of thousands of people, there was a multi-storey car park on the right hand side and every level was filled to the brim.
“Where we swam was in this sunken quay, and the whole of the quayside was lined with people. I can just remember walking out to this wall of sound.
“I remember diving into the water and every time you turned your head to breathe, just seeing all the flashes from all the cameras.
“Every time you popped your head out of the water, the noise coming from the crowd was unbelievable. It was the most amazing experience.”
So many fans being in attendance can add to the nerves, however.
“It was wet and drizzly,” Walker added.
“They had us going over the tramlines on the bike and I was petrified of falling off in front of all these people.
“My aim was not to make a fool of myself but the race went really well.”
Walker’s experiences demonstrate how much the Commonwealth Games can mean to athletes from the smaller nations and territories which do not have the option of the Olympics.
Glasgow, where he tussled with the Brownlees, was extra special as he was chosen to be Gibraltar’s flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony.
“Certainly being the flagbearer for me was the pinnacle of my sporting career, and outshone any great performances I’d experienced,” he said.
“Because leading your country in, I don’t think anything can ever beat it.
“We walked out at Celtic Park and we had the little Scottie dogs which was fantastic.
“We have a small team and we all know each other very well. That enhances that experience, it’s just that feeling of carrying the flag, that is the difference.
“No matter what people tell you about walking out into a massive stadium, you just can’t appreciate it until you actually experience it.
“But when you’re walking out and you’re carrying the flag of your country, it’s such a special moment. I remember it vividly but there are so many emotions at that time it’s difficult to put into words.”
Walker is the President of the Gibraltar Triathlon Association and competed in cycling at the Melbourne 2006 and Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games after undergoing back surgery, which limited his ability to run.
He battled back to his favoured sport of triathlon and is rightly proud of the longevity of his career, which continued years after many would have retired.
“What I’m most proud of is the consistency,” he said. “It is difficult, especially in an endurance sport.
“I think I was at my best in Glasgow when I was 47.
“For Gold Coast, unfortunately they changed it to sprint distance which favours the younger athletes.
“It’s the longer the better really if you’re older. In Gold Coast I was five seconds off a pack of swimmers and I missed the group on the bike. So it’s fine margins.”
Gibraltar is hoping to take 22 athletes to Birmingham 2022 in sports including athletics, road cycling, swimming, triathlon and squash. There are also hopes for mountain bike, rhythmic gymnastics and weightlifting.
Athletes to watch include cyclist Mark Lett, a talented rower who has switched to the bike, and swimmer Jordan Gonzalez who reached the semi-finals of the 50m backstroke in Gold Coast.
Kelvin Gomez has moved from athletics to follow in Walker’s footsteps in triathlon, and boasts a promising cycle and run, while it is hoped that Holly O’Shea will be given a spot in weightlifting.
Gibraltar hosted the Island Games in 2019, which attracted multi-million pound investment and left the territory at the foot of Spain with excellent facilities.
This includes a new 50m pool which can be split into two 25m pools, which is next door to a 400m athletics track.
“Across the board we’ve got excellent facilities for all sports involved in the Commonwealth Games,” said Walker.
“Rhythmic gymnasts have their own hall, we’ve got squash clubs, our main cycling is in Spain but it’s the most amazing routes just over the border.
“And of course we’ve got the weather which makes all the difference.”
Gibraltar won eight gold medals at its home Island Games and the experience has improved standards.
“The whole community got behind it and I think what it has done is that the strength of the Commonwealth Games team for Birmingham would not have happened had we not hosted in 2019,” Walker said.
“In several sports we have raised our standards quite significantly.
“The way things are looking at the moment, I honestly think we’re going to have the strongest team we’ve ever had in Birmingham, which is very exciting for us.
“The standard required is a significant step up.
“It really does resonate with all athletes as something to aspire to and achieve, it’s not one of those things that you can dabble in to get qualification.
“You have to be really committed to your sport to get the chance to compete in the Commonwealth Games.
“It’s massive for us in the sporting circles. Gibraltar’s such a small place, we’ve only got a population of 30,000.
“Because of that the Commonwealth Games is the pinnacle, it’s the highest level we can compete in because we’re not part of the Olympic Movement. It’s by far the best experience an athlete can attain to.”
Gibraltar submitted a bid for the now-delayed 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games which were awarded to Trinidad and Tobago, and has applied unsuccessfully for Olympic recognition several times.
At London 2012, rhythmic gymnast Georgina Cassar became the first Olympian from Gibraltar but did so in British colours.
The territory is recognised by a number of governing bodies, however, including football organisations FIFA and UEFA after victories at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
“Gibraltar will always have the aspiration to compete in the Olympics and we hope that one day we will find a way that enables us to do that,” Walker said.
“At some point in the 1990s we applied and fulfilled all the criteria. They didn’t reply to us and then changed the criteria, before replying and saying ‘you don’t fulfil the criteria’.
“We have looked at the legal aspects and everything else but unfortunately there wasn’t a way for us to do it.”
Gibraltar is yet to win a Commonwealth Games medal but can look to Bermuda’s Flora Duffy, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic triathlon champion, as an example of what smaller teams can do.
Duffy is now worshipped in Bermuda – home to 64,000 people – where a stadium, stamps, rum and a street have all been named after her.
“It would 100 per cent have been the same in Gibraltar,” said Walker. “When Gibraltar won Miss World, we had a public holiday.
“We’ve yet to find our Flora Duffy. It can happen and, every once in a while, it will happen.
“We just have to work hard in developing sport and the coaches. We have fantastic facilities here, so we have all the ingredients for it, we just have to find that special person who has all the attributes and the mental attitude and everything else, and the ability to perform at that elite level.”
Walker said he was expecting Birmingham 2022, which is due to run between July 28 and August 8, to be a success.
“I’m 100 per cent convinced,” he said.
“From my experience, when the Games are held in a relatively small city, I find that the whole city gets behind it, and whoever you talk to the focus is on the Games, and I think that’s going to happen in Birmingham.
“The fact that it will be the first major Games to allow attendance from the public will be a huge difference.
“Some people who have qualified for the team for the first time have said ‘I wish the Games were somewhere exotic like the Gold Coast, you were so lucky’.
“But I’ve said that’s completely not the case.
“When you are representing Gibraltar in the UK, because our ties are so, so close, the crowd support Gibraltar like it’s England, Scotland or Wales.
“We get the same level of support and I think that’s what makes it such a special Games.
“From my experience the Games that have been held in the UK have been by far the best.”