The 5 unlikeliest heroes of the Commonwealth Games
The Commonwealth Games have often been overlooked as a major sporting competition due to two interconnected factors: in the first instance, at least when compared to other sporting events, the Commonwealth is an unusual geographical field from which to allow athletes to compete. Whilst competition between England and neighbouring Wales, Scotland and Northern Island merits notice, can there really be any tangible international rivalry between England and Kiribati, for example?
It is partly due to this purported arbitrariness of the athletic field at the games that many see a Commonwealth gold to hold far less gravitas than a World or Olympic gold; to this can be added the fact that this year there is an apparent dearth of the biggest names: eligible and notable absentees include Mo Farah, Yohan Blake, Jessica Ennis, and (at least in the individual events) Usain Bolt. Though such absences have arguably weakened the strength of their respective disciplines, they have allowed for athletes to emerge whose stories might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Rather than produce a nationally-biased, medal-biased list of heroes of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, it seems better to take the opportunity offered by such a competition to shine a light on some of the more unlikely heroes, whose very participation on the Commonwealth stage should sufficiently prove its worth to anyone who considers the mantra of Pierre De Coubertin – considered the father of the modern Olympics – that ‘the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well’ as integral to the spirit of modern athletic competition.
Way has enjoyed a barrage of media coverage in the past few days, which his story entirely warrants. In 2007, at 16-and-a-half-stone, a heavy smoker and drinker, and self-confessedly wandering from one day to the next, Way decided to start running and by the next year had completed the London marathon in 2:35.26, finishing in 100th place. A few years of training later (whilst working 9-5 at a bank), Way qualified for the Commonwealth Games having completed the 2014 marathon in 2:16.27, coming in 15th place. He hadn’t trained for the race itself and at the start of the day had only intended to take the marathon as an easy warm-up for the UK 100km Championships later in the year (which he won by 46 minutes). His three goals for the Commonwealth Games marathon were to finish in the top 10, achieve a personal best, and beat the British veteran’s record, all of which he accomplished. Though such a dramatic improvement is helped by a clear natural aptitude for long-distance running, his story serves as a broader demonstration of the ability for self-improvement at any age.
Biniati, who competed in the women’s flyweight boxing, is a resident of Kiribati, a Pacific island whose population numbers a little over 100,000. Before the Glasgow games, the 18-year-old had never previously left the island and received funding for her trip from the Kiribati government and the Commonwealth Games Federation. The selection process was explained by the Kiribati team official Derek Andrewartha: “She qualified because she is the best female boxer in our country – based on being the only one”. Biniati trained in Kiribati using a punch bag hanging from a breadfruit tree, had only taken up boxing last year, and had never entered a boxing gym before arriving in Glasgow; moreover, until her first round loss against the Mauritian Isabelle Ratna, she had never fought with another woman, as Andrewartha explained: “She has to spar with the boys, and the problem is they’re too shy to hit her”.
Siosi, a 5000m runner hailing from the Solomon Islands, finished his race two-and-a-half laps behind the winner Caleb Mwangangi Ndiku. Though his time would put him slower than the fastest under-14s in the Commonwealth, his closing laps form an enduring image, one which is – almost without fail – seen in at least one race at every international athletics event, and one which perhaps comes closest to symbolising Coubertin’s philosophy on athletic competition. He completed his two final laps on his own in terms of his fellow runners, but with the help of the wall of noise created by the 40,000 strong Hampden Park crowd, most of whom would not have even known his name before the race. Despite being lapped three times, the 17-year-old kept running to the race’s completion, achieving a national record in the process. His attitude is one to be admired: “I almost gave up, but the crowd were shouting, ‘Go! Go!’, so I had to finish the race. I’m privileged to compete against the fastest people in the world”.
Although Nanjappa had to endure the heartbreak of missing out on the men’s 10m air pistol gold by a single point, the 38-year-old has made a remarkable comeback since July 2013, during which he suffered a facial paralytic attack whilst competing in the World Cup in Granada. Diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, he was quoted in The Hindu as saying: “I was initially worried as the eye is the most crucial organ for a shooter. . . . I read up about it and realised that it was a condition that would last a maximum of six months’. He was back in training in a month-and-a-half (at the time the National Rifle Association of India secretary Rajiv Bhatia asserted that “though he has been discharged by the doctors, he [has been] asked strictly to keep off the ranges”. After three months he won silver in the 50m free pistol shooting event at the Asian Air Gun Championship, and now, nearly a year later, he has, against all the odds both medical and sporting, won a silver medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Initially, there may seem to be nothing markedly impressive about Smyth finishing fifth in the 100m heats, until you realise that he is legally blind. Though the Northern Ireland athlete suffers from Stargardt’s disease, with which he has just 10% of what is considered to be normal vision, he only missed out on the qualification standard of the able-bodied 100m for the 2012 Olympics by 0.04 seconds. Indeed, he explained to Able Magazine the reasons behind his desire to compete alongside able-bodied athletes: “For me, it’s about being as best as I can possibly be and I don’t restrict myself to what I can be”. His participation alongside able-bodied athletes at these games is representative of Glasgow’s broader successful integration of the para-sport programme with the main schedules. The para-sports events medals count towards the national medal tallies and the para-sports are interspersed temporally with the able-bodied events. Smyth is one of a few athletes who have successfully bridged the gap between para-sport and able-bodied events, silencing anyone doubting the elite calibre of those eligible for para-sport.