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Fun and Games

I’m not saying the Falklands is a tiny place, but… in the course of one day, last month, in the newly-anointed city of Stanley, I had my hair cut by one international athlete and then my passport processed by another.

Soon-to-be international athletes, anyway. They’re both part of the Islands’ team for this year’s Commonwealth Games, which opens in Birmingham at 8pm this evening.

The Falklands has despatched 16 competitors across four sports: badminton, table tennis, cycling, and – that game of kings – lawn bowls. For most, this is their first Commonwealth Games. For some, thanks largely to Covid, the second-biggest sporting event in the world will be their debut international experience!

The youngest, 15-year-old Ben Chater, has not only never competed internationally before, but has only ever played badminton in one place: the Stanley leisure centre. (I taught him English for a chunk of last year, so shall be making much of this connection if he ‘podiums’.)

Javier Sotomayor (table tennis – and my stylist), moved here over a decade ago, and has been the Islands’ table tennis champion for four years running. I think it’s fair to say the Falklands whiff-whaff scene is not enormous – he qualified through the ‘Americas’(??) regional wildcard system – and Javier’s our solitary men’s player (the same number as Jersey, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea). Mind you, hairdressers are in short supply here too: I hope he doesn’t end up turning pro.

At 46, Head of the Immigration Dept. Jim Horton (time trial and road race) is not merely making his international debut but is the first cyclist ever to race for the Falkland Islands – which given that there’s only about 40 miles of tarmac’d road outside of Stanley is maybe not entirely surprising. Jim actually hails from the Black Country; but now his main fear is that he’ll be caught riding round his former neighbourhood leaning manically into stiff, but totally imaginary, winds. I taught his son, too, now I think of it.

Ben’s aunt Vicky Chater (badminton again), is the co-owner/manager of my daughter’s nursery, and had a (second) child of her own a little over eight months ago! She’ll be competing in the ‘clean sweep’ of ladies singles, ladies doubles, and mixed doubles. Another badmintoner, Doug Clark (fresh in from training camp in Denmark), is the son of one of my more – most? – venerable DJing colleagues, a Royal Marine who served here back in 1982. Doug is on his seventh Commonwealth Games, and in his spare time spent eight years as captain of the national football team. Earlier this month he was selected as one of the party’s two flag-bearers, “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Soraye March has been playing badminton since she was five years old (she’s only 17 now), and in one of her five international appearances she’s met local fly-boy war hero Prince Edward – which is nothing to her dad, Duane (47, one previous Commonwealth), who’s had a one-to-one with the Queen. Their mum and wife, respectively, Cheryl, is in the team, too, in both the mixed and ladies doubles. Talented bunch.

Daphne Arthur-Almond (lawn bowls) was one of the first people I met in the Falklands, singing at a one-off evensong in February 2021. She’s competed internationally on two occasions: at the World Indoor Bowls Championships in Bristol three months ago, and once in 1985, at the Asian Games – for netball! I was delighted to hear she’ll share flag-bearing honours with Doug.

Even among the bowlers, Daphne’s age-to-playing-career ratio (30:1) is at the higher end; but she’s in excellent company. Garry Tyrell is on his third international sport – after cricket and football – and his claim to fame (til now) is to have been the oldest cup-winning goal-scorer (>40) in the Falklands, after the goalie saved his airborne boot instead of the ball. Ex-mariner and harbour master Chris Locke has loads of medals and was at the 2012 Olympics – though, alas, the two are, as yet, unrelated (he was volunteering in Danny Boyle’s opening extravaganza).

The team’s match balls have (naturally) cute penguins on them. But while the snow dumps down here, in the austral winter, our bowlers have been training in extremely sunny Oxfordshire. (There’ve been a lot of quite uncalled-for photos of their knees.) Primary school teacher and bowls team junior Andrea Stanworth had not yet joined them, last I heard (termtime continues). A 12-year resident, Andrea only took the sport up in the last 12 months. She was too polite to tell me whom she’d beaten in the qualifying stages, so I can’t say if there were months of vicious prelims or if in fact she’s never played at all. But what I do know is there are no ‘lawns’ here in the Falklands Islands (OK – the Governor has one; but it’s been white for weeks now), so bowls is played exclusively indoors, on roll-out carpets. If Andrea’s RAF flight is delayed (hardly unheard of), she may yet bowl her first ball on grass in the opening round of one of the world’s most-widely-televised sporting events.

Given the proportion of the population which they represent, what’s perhaps more surprising about the Falklands Commonwealth contingent is how many of them I don’t know. I wonder if 16 competitors out of a civilian population of 3,000 might not itself be notable, in international sport? By comparison, England would need to send a team of about 275,000. (They’re sending 440.)

Also noteworthy is the diverse make-up of the Islands’ Games contingent. A recent Multicultural Day here featured cuisine and cultural displays from 61 nations, and both competitors and backroom staff are reflective of the many and various points of origin, as well as the broadly outward-looking ethos of the modern Islands.

The March family are from St Helena, originally. Laura Harada (also badminton) has, as she puts it, ‘a Japanese surname and Chinese family heritage’. Javier was born and grew up in Chile.

Lawn bowls manager Cecil Alexander, like any good South African, is involved in every sport that you can shake a stick at, and several where that’s not allowed. He too competed in the World Indoor Bowls Championships, with Daphne, and is Javier’s ping-pong training partner. Chef de mission Andrew Brownlee MBE (and also JP) came here from Britain in 1981, and rose to be, among a host of other things, a Captain in the Falklands Islands Defence Force (FIDF).

Jim’s UK-based cycling coach, Simon Fenton, used to work here, at the nation’s single bank (fun fact: the nation also has one solitary cash machine. They’re not in the same place). And Sarfraz Rao – from Pakistan, the current Standard Chartered chief executive – plays cricket, organises marathons, and is the table-tennis coach/manager. Even our press attaché, Oliver Thompson (West Yorks), made the indoor bowls team last year for the (Covid-postponed) Island Games in Guernsey.

For the next couple of weeks, though, all of them will be 8000 miles from where they now call home. As I write, the team have checked in at the Athletes Village, had a welcome from their ‘mayor’, champion javeliniste Tessa Sanderson CBE, been met by a flood of encouraging letters sent over from the Infant Junior School in Stanley, and started friendly warm-up matches versus Fiji, Ghana, and (the even smaller!) Norfolk Island.

In a Christmas message last year, Boris Johnson congratulated the Falklands on being admitted as a full member of the International Table Tennis Federation. But every silver lining has its cloud, and these remarks alone were met with a torrent of complaints from Buenos Aires, who had – with wearying inevitability – tried to prevent the membership. “It says an awful lot,” remarks Andy Brownlee, “that the rest of the world are not politicising sport.’ But The Old Issue rumbles on, apparently ad infinitum.

In the run-up to the recent 40th-anniversary commemorations of the Falklands War I interviewed a handful of veteran members of the FIDF, including Gerald Cheek. A sergeant on the night of the Argentinian invasion, and subsequently interned by the occupying forces, he told me how, in late 1982, he travelled to Australia as the Islands’ joint-first Commonwealth Games competitor (in full-bore rifle shooting – somewhat fittingly). They were surprised to find that they were mobbed by press, given medals by one Charlton Heston(!), and indeed to discover, after the tournament, that they had been, throughout, under the watchful eye of close protection details – in case, Gerald presumes, our South Atlantic neighbours attempted some kind of insane reprisal. But not half as surprised as when they walked into the Brisbane stadium, bearing the Falklands sheep-and-ship flag, to hear the place erupt in international, comradely support.

ASH Smyth was once selected to play cricket for the Falkland Islands. He couldn’t make it.

For Spectator Life, in a rather shorter edit

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