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Niue, the small team with a Premier on the greens

By Dan Palmer

In many ways the Commonwealth Games are summed up by the participation of Niue, a coral island in the South Pacific which locals like to call “The Rock”.

Niue is not eligible for the Olympics, but this isolated home to fewer than 2,000 people has a place at the “Friendly Games” and will be taking 15 athletes to Birmingham 2022.

The squad faces a journey of almost a day to Birmingham, via Auckland and Dubai. But it will be worth it as the Commonwealth Games are the biggest stage where they can compete in Niue colours.

“These Games are where they get an opportunity to represent Niue,” said Tony Edwards, the team’s Chef de Mission for Birmingham.

“We’re looking forward to coming over. 

“We’re a small team, but like every event we go with high hopes.”

Most of Niue’s team in Birmingham will be lawn bowlers, with 10 players selected.

The island, which is a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, has also named four boxers and a weightlifter.

As the amount of people at home is so small, selectors have cast the net wide to find athletes eligible for Niue who are based overseas.

“With a small population in Niue, we’ve expanded that out to our Niueans abroad,” said Edwards, the senior vice-president of the Niue Commonwealth Games Association.

“These Games are where you need to take the best that you’ve got, to represent Niue.

“As much as we feel that in Niue we’d like to take athletes from our original country, it’s also getting out there, representing Niue, and hoping that we can bring results back.”

Niue first competed at the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games and has been ever-present since then, without winning a medal. 

The island has normally selected shooters, but as the sport is not on the programme in Birmingham there will be more focus on bowls, which it has played at every Games since Melbourne 2006.

Among the team is Dalton Tagelagi, the current Premier of Niue, which is the island’s head of Government and most senior political position.

He also competed at the Glasgow 2014 and Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.

“We’re pretty proud to continue on with our lawn bowlers representing at the Commonwealth Games,” Edwards, also Niue’s national rugby coach for both sevens and 15s, said.

“We’ve got a really good squad, they’ve represented at the Pacific Games and the Pacific Mini Games. 

“We had really good results at the last Pacific Games in Samoa, where we came away with gold, silver and bronze.

“It’s always a case of ‘where do we want to go next?’

“We’ve got the Commonwealth Games coming up now and we’ve got a good representation of athletes in the bowls team who have medalled at the Pacific events. 

“The hope is always there. 

“We want to go there and represent, and at the same time compete with the bigger nations. 

“With an open mind and the bowlers really focused, I’m confident they are going to go out there and do their best to represent Niue.” 

Niue’s athletes will be supported by 14 officials in Birmingham. The delegation left for New Zealand on July 12 for training, and are due to leave for the Games on July 22.

As with many small countries, Niue is appreciative of funding provided by bodies such as the Commonwealth Games Federation and PacificAus Sports.

“We need a lot of help in terms of facilities and technical help from coaches overseas,” said Edwards, who previously served as Niue’s chief of police.

“We’ve tried to utilise a lot of funding to provide that for our athletes.

“The Government has also funded some parts of this journey and we’re grateful for our Niue Government. 

“Athletes are getting sponsorship on their own for their preparation, and we’ve got the local community fundraising. 

“They never shy away from providing funds to support the team.”

Niue is home to a single bowling green and athletes appreciate time abroad when possible to hone their skills at better facilities.

“We’re not as fortunate as our athletes in Auckland where they’ve got multiple greens which they can go to,” said Edwards, who is the President of Niue’s powerlifting association. 

“They’ve got greens with covers over!

“We’re a humble country, we make do with what we’ve got. The only time we can expose ourselves is getting out to other countries.

“We’ve got a humble gym for our weightlifters. Our weightlifter is from New Zealand and so has access to proper facilities and proper coaching.” 

The coronavirus pandemic forced a long period of lockdown in Niue and stopped the island’s important tourism industry in its tracks.

Life has started to open up again in the past few weeks, however, with visitors slowly starting to return.

“COVID has changed everything in the last couple of years,” Edwards said.

“Even now it’s really challenging as it’s one more week before we get on the flight, and anything can happen.

“We’ve given strict instructions to our athletes that the ownership and responsibility is on yourselves – ‘look after yourselves and make sure you get on that plane to Birmingham’. 

“If we manage that properly we’ll make sure we get the athletes over there.”

Niue, sitting on a raised coral reef, boasts incredible scuba diving and opportunities for fishing.

In 2016, the Government announced that all national debt had been paid off and declared its intention never to borrow again.

Funding from New Zealand is vital, with other industries including bananas and passion fruit.

On Sundays, the island shuts down for a day of rest and giving thanks, with barely any vehicles seen on the roads.

Edwards will be serving as the Chef de Mission for the first time in Birmingham, and says he can remember a visit to the island by Prince Charles when he was in primary school.

“I’m pretty excited with the background of sports that I’ve got,” he said.

“You do it for a passion, obviously we don’t get paid. Everything I do is voluntary so that’s what makes it more passionate.”

Selecting athletes was a tricky process with plenty wanting to compete for Niue.

“There’s internal challenges that we’ve had in making sure we’ve got the right athletes to represent,” said Edwards.

“It doesn’t always go smooth with selection, everyone wants to represent Niue and rightfully so. 

“At the end of the day we’ve got to make sure we go through the proper processes and select the best team to go to Birmingham.”

Edwards said “it’s to be expected, we can’t avoid that” when asked about the team’s long journey to England.

In March, the Queen’s Baton Relay spent two days on the island which marked the halfway point of its trip around the Commonwealth.

The Niue Council of Women welcomed the baton with singing, and Birmingham 2022 mascot Perry journeyed in a waka, a traditional Niuean canoe.

It also visited Utoko Reef, the Paliati Grounds Stadium and Fatiau Tuai, an abandoned village. 

“I’m proud to be appointed as Chef de Mission for Team Niue,” Edwards said.

“It’s been a challenging journey for the team. 

“However, it is what it is and we’re really excited to journey on to Birmingham.” 

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