Design a site like this with WordPress.com
Get started

Seventy-two Chefs de Mission pieces? Completed it, mate

By Dan Palmer

At first, it seemed like a simple enough task.  

The team at insidethegames were preparing for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games and I took on the challenge of interviewing the Chef de Mission from every competing country and territory. 

Granted, that meant getting in touch with and speaking to 72 different people – which sounds like a lot on paper – but I began months in advance and didn’t foresee too many problems. 

Surely it would just be a case of obtaining a number, and then picking up the phone? Of course, I should have known better. 

Numerous emails, WhatsApp messages and calls went unanswered, and persistence became the name of the game to get these people to speak. 

A full list of names with contact details did not exist, so it was up to me to frantically search the internet before firing off correspondence in the hope of receiving a reply. 

Every day I would consult my complex spreadsheet of names and numbers, while checking my inbox to cross off the email addresses which had bounced back and no longer worked. 

A lot of countries did not confirm their Chef de Mission until quite late in the build-up to the Games, meaning I had to play the waiting game. 

Of course, as Birmingham 2022 loomed near, it meant that the people I needed to tie down were exceptionally busy and with less free time to speak. 

It was a real slog, and there were times when I thought I might not make it. 

But somehow, someway, I managed to speak to all 72 of the Birmingham 2022 Chefs de Mission before the Opening Ceremony on July 28. 

They all gave up varying amounts of their time, and the vast majority provided a fantastic interview. 

The process, as you might expect, was a fascinating experience. 

The Commonwealth Games stretches to every part of the earth and covers some of the world’s tiniest and remotest places. 

These are destinations I often knew next to nothing about, so it was privilege to pick up the phone and learn their sporting stories. 

I made a Zoom call to St Helena to discuss their 11 day sea voyage to Glasgow 2014, and the fact that rabbits have dug up the island’s only sports field. 

I contacted the Falkland Islands and was left in little doubt about the pro-Commonwealth feeling found at the foot of South America, where the bowls team have to set up in a school corridor, dodging the cleaners trying to vacuum around them. 

A particular thrill came when I spoke to Anguilla’s Cardigan Connor, a former cricketer who starred as a fast bowler for my very own county of Hampshire. 

Connor needed to direct me onto the subject of the Commonwealth Games as we could have ended up talking about bat and ball for hours.  

Of particular interest were his exploits at the May’s Bounty ground in my hometown of Basingstoke, where I once memorably blasted a six into the car park with the first ball of my innings before being comically stumped on the next delivery. 

I spoke to Tony Edwards in Niue, a former chief of police who was right in the middle of his team’s preparations. 

As we chatted on Microsoft Teams, I could see the greens where the island’s lawn bowlers were hard in training behind him. 

Staying in the South Pacific, I had an absorbing chat with Tala Simeti in Tuvalu, a country threatened by rising sea levels which I have long been fascinated by. 

He explained how athletes trained on the international airport runway, as space in this group of atolls is at such a premium. 

In Montserrat, Valerie Samuel described what life was like after the volcano blast which has turned the southernmost part of the island into a no-go zone. 

Then there was Frederick Acheampong in Ghana, a man I couldn’t resist talking about the FIFA World Cup with as he is also an Executive Committee member of the country’s football body. 

Ghana have been drawn with Uruguay at Qatar 2022 – the country which knocked them out of the South Africa World Cup in 2010 after Luis Suarez’s infamous deliberate handball. 

Acheampong said Ghana might have won the competition if it wasn’t for that moment, with his passion for his side really coming through. 

Some teams named former athletes as their Chef de Mission, including Gibraltar’s triathlete Chris Walker who recalled racing in front of a packed multi-storey car park at Manchester 2002. 

Singapore’s Lim Heem Wei won a gymnastics silver medal on the balance beam in Glasgow, and Dominica’s Woody Lawrence, a swimmer, was the first to represent the island in any sport at the Olympic Games.  

COVID-19, perhaps inevitably, was a recurring theme. I heard about the tribulations faced by the Cook Islands Olympic team, who endured months in quarantine when returning home from Tokyo 2020. 

On occasion, the chats became more sombre.  

The tragic death of athletics coach Xavier “Dag” Samuels in the British Virgin Islands, and the destruction of the beach handball venue in Saint Kitts and Nevis following a tropical storm, saw proceedings take a more thought-provoking turn. 

I learnt how sport has helped repair Rwanda after the genocide in 1994 and, in Sri Lanka, Chef de Mission Major General Dampath Fernando gave up his time when his country seemed to be falling apart. 

Protestors had just stormed the Presidential Palace and food and petrol were running out, but he still had 20 minutes to chat sport. 

Time zones proved problematic as I attempted to speak with people from all four corners of the globe. 

I conducted interviews at 7am and 9pm to cater for where people were in the world, with the Cook Islands’ location to the east of the International Date Line proving to be particularly confusing. 

On four or five occasions I stayed up until midnight for an arranged Zoom call that was convenient for the other side of the world, only for the Chef de Mission not to appear and the chat having to be rearranged. 

There was one occasion, however, when the no-show was entirely my fault. 

My apologies again to New Zealand’s weightlifting gold medallist Nigel Avery, who agreed to speak with me on a Wednesday morning his time. 

This was of course Tuesday night in the UK, but for some reason I had it in my head that it would be 24 hours later than what was actually arranged.  

I was instead watching my football team Basingstoke Town get thumped 4-1 in a play-off semi-final in Chertsey, and I have to tell you that speaking to Avery was a far more pleasant way to spend part of an evening. 

The 72 pieces I produced from my interviews led to some rather nice consequences. 

When speaking to Connor about Anguilla, he mentioned that the island was facing problems sourcing its kit for Birmingham. They were thinking about using old gear from the previous Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast in 2018, which ought to be a souvenir for the athletes who competed in Australia four years ago.  

I was able to issue a plea for help which resulted in a donation of $10,000 being made, while a local West Midlands company came forward with assistance for the team’s boxers.  

Later, when I watched a re-run of the BBC coverage of the Opening Ceremony, I recognised a number of facts from my pieces as commentators Hazel Irvine and Andrew Cotter talked the audience through the parade of nations. 

The 72 articles had clearly been a key part of the channel’s research so my work, already viewed extensively on insidethegames, was broadcast to millions of viewers. 

What came after the Opening Ceremony was a fantastic Games, packed full of fantastic sport in a city which buzzed with warmth and enthusiasm. 

A highlight for me was the final Saturday, when the streets were packed with happy people trying to soak up the atmosphere that only a multi-sport event can bring. 

As crowds gathered around the famous raging bull that was such a hit at the Opening Ceremony, it seemed like a world away from the disappointment felt at the Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympics which were shut off to the public because of coronavirus. 

Australia and hosts England inevitably won a hatful of medals, but after speaking to all 72 of the countries I found myself rooting for the little guy. 

Hearing the stories of the Chefs de Mission meant I felt an affinity and connection to the varying teams competing at Birmingham 2022, and I wanted them all to do well. 

Not everyone can top the medal table, but the smaller delegations have their own targets which, if achieved, mean just as much. 

Winning just one gold medal, for example, prompts wild celebrations for these teams and as I saw this happen in Birmingham it felt extra special as I knew the Chef de Mission who would be joining in with the festivities. 

The likes of Samoa, Barbados, Cameroon, British Virgin Islands and Grenada all topped the podium, with Mauritius, Mozambique, Guernsey, Tanzania, The Gambia, Saint Lucia, Vanuatu, Nauru and Dominica among others who also won a medal. 

A special mention to Niue, an island of fewer than 2,000 people but one which reached the podium for the very first time in its history thanks to Duken Tutakitoa-Williams’ bronze in boxing. 

Most of the people who give up their time to assist smaller Commonwealth Games countries are volunteers, so they deserve all the success which comes their way. 

It’s a shame that every team could not leave Birmingham with a medal, but there is always four years’ time and the Victoria 2026 Games to plan for. 

I am already looking forward to that occasion in Australia, and to discovering the latest chapters in the stories of the Commonwealth. 

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: