On Monday, Charisma Amoe-Tarrant from Nauru, a tiny island in the Pacific, opened her country’s account at Gold Coast. The 18-year-old won a silver medal in the women’s 90+kg. For an Island spread over 21 square kms and a population of 10,000; Nauru has a Commonwealth Games medal for roughly every 450 citizens. The country’s 30 CWG medal streak goes back to the 1982 Auckland Games, where they made their debut.
Over the years, they have found an interesting way to fund their weighlifting programme. Australia has outsourced the ‘offshore processing’ of asylum-seekers to Nauru. The revenue that the Island nation gets from this operation is, partially, used to promote weightlifting. “We have the sea and fisheries that’s generating some revenue. But unlike other big countries, who have diverse economy, we have to look at other ways to develop ours,” Nauru chef de mission Kieren Keke, also a Member of Parliament in Nauru, tells The Indian Express. “Assisting Australia with an issue they have is one way of doing that. Although this carries reward and risk.”
Nauru didn’t always depend on the outside world for help. Once a self-sustaining economy, its phosphate reserves made Nauru one of the richest countries in the world in the mid-1970s. A Financial Times report put the island’s GDP in 1975 as second only to Saudi Arabia. But the mining boom went bust and, along with the affects of global warming, the nation was broke. “We had stronger lines on phosphate that lasted for 100 or so years. There is (still) some phosphate left but it’s not the same revenue generating activity as it was before,” Keke says.
Giving details about the screening of potential Aussie citizens, Keke says it takes several months for the process to finish. “Most of them come from the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Iran… it’s a mix of people. Australia makes a decision whether to refer people to Nauru. When they are here, they go through the standard UN refugee screening processes. Till then, they basically live in the community. There’s particular housing in community for them,” Keke says. “A number of them live in interiors of the country. There are camps and villages being created now in small housing areas all around the island.”
A Sydney Morning Herald report in November 2017 estimated that the program will cost $385 million to the Australian taxpayers for 12 months. That money would be used to construct structures in Nauru, pay salaries to the staff working there and also its government. Keke adds that around 1,000 Naurans work at these centres, making them of the country’s biggest employers. And it has also kept their weightlifting dreams afloat.
“For the general population of Nauru, it is seen as an activity that provides employment – a lot of Naurans work at the centres, providing general support that’s required to run it. Over a 1,000 Naurans are working there,” Keke says. “There’s a lot of imports… people coming in and out of the country. The national airline is more active. So the whole system is functioning. Australia funds the whole programme and a part of it goes into our weightlifting programme.”
Oppenheimer, an Australian Rules Football player, says weightlifters enjoy superstar status in the country.
“They are like the cricketers in Australia or soccer players in England. Very popular,” Oppenheimer says. He isn’t exaggerating.
Marcus Stephen, the island’s most famous figure, is the pioneer of the sport. Stephen has won seven of Nauru’s 10 gold medals and five out of the seven silver medals in his four Commonwealth Games appearances from 1990 to 2002. His Commonwealth Games record of lifting 292kg in 62kg category of the Kuala Lumpur CWG in 1998, stands till date.
His popularity can be gauged by the fact that he went on to become Nauru’s president, apart from heading the country’s Olympic committee and the Oceania Weightlifting Federation.