The Pacific Islanders endure a difficult start to Birmingham 2022 but still we root for them, writes Steve Bunce
A MAN from Kiribati was brutally beaten last Friday afternoon in Birmingham.
The Pacific Islander never stood a chance in bout number two of the opening day of the Commonwealth Games. Trust me, that is not a cheap shot; Timon Aaree lasted less than three minutes against Scotland’s Reese Lynch.
Others from boxing’s third world were stopped quicker. Hey, it’s the friendly Games, but tell that to Aaree after Lynch had hit him and hit him and hit him; hospitality is generally a bit more subtle. The first few days were savage for the Pacific Island teams and many were stopped and outclassed.
However, I would scream the place down if the finest from Kiribati and Tuvalu were somehow denied their right to compete every four years. There is always the hope and dream that one of the men or women from Samoa or Niue or Nauru will go back to their islands in paradise and turn their beating in the Commonwealth Games into a massive positive. It was not easy viewing, watching the contenders from nowhere get stopped so easily.
On day four, there was a classic clash of islanders that got me excited. Saint Lucia from the Caribbean against Tuvalu from the South Pacific. The belt would be woven coconut husks and seashells. The WBC has made belts from just about every substance they can find, attaching mined gems and slaughtered crocodiles to their green versions.
Tuvalu is a nine-island paradise with less than 12,000 population. Saint Lucia is the Caribbean jewel with over 180,000 inhabitants. It is an island of luxury and there is a volcanic backdrop, set against natural, untouched wonder. If Bounty Bars did titles, these two would be in the final. Tuvalu is the smallest nation taking part in this year’s Games. And there is some fierce competition for that title.
However, in the ring, it would be 80-kilos of pride at light-heavyweight: Saint Lucia’s Arthur Langelier against Tuvalu’s Leatialii Afoa. They both had byes in the opening round to the unofficial final of boxing’s Island Dreamer championship. I watched the hope from Vanuatu lose, two battlers from Papua New Guinea lose and finally found out that Seru Whippy, the official from Fiji was a man: Yep, that’s Mr. Whippy to you.
Two bouts before the one I was there to watch; Scotland’s Sean Lazzerini did a job on Jean Luc Rosalba from Mauritius. It finished in the third; Lazzerini was special. “He loves it, he absolutely loves it and he can fight,” said big Stephen Simmons, who is now part of the Scottish coaching system. Ricky Burns, who is not in Birmingham, is also one of the coaches.
It was getting closer to my fight, real close.
Ding ding, round one: Hold on, empty ring and an announcement: A walkover. Afoa had failed to make the weight and that meant the winner was Langelier. What? I rushed down to the mixed zone to see if either were loitering for me to grab. No chance, but I did get a few minutes with Morning Tryagain Ndevelo from Namibia. That is his real name, he told me. I love that, blame his mum.
I was stuck without a fight and the new belt would be unclaimed, but I went and watched some netball, table tennis and weightlifting before going back for the evening session of the boxing. It would be the best so far of the Games. I still had two light-heavyweights to track down. They owed me.
I spoke to somebody who had been at the obligatory morning weigh-in. He shook his head and smiled and then confirmed Afoa’s failure. He then told me the real story. It is hard to invent. And, a bit sad.
So, Afoa made the weight the week before when he had to; he then just had to maintain his weight before the morning of truth. There are check scales, used by men and women to make sure they have made the weight; get on the check scales, check and then jump on the official scales. There is a big sign above the scales to let you know which is which. That is the standard and established tournament method. Well, not, it turns out, in Tuvalu.
Afoa wandered over for the weigh-in and jumped on the official scales. He was 0.2 of a kilo over and because he had jumped on the official scales he was out. No second chance, no movement, just heartbreak. There were harsh words exchanged, translators were called, arbitration experts were found, but rules are rules. The Tuvalu light-heavyweight champion, the pride of the South Pacific was out. “I only had a cup of water,” he said. I felt for the big lad; Afoa travelled 9,402 miles to lose to a sip of water and some ancient rulings. Tough business.
My man Afoa kept his head down that afternoon and that evening at the boxing. I searched in vain for a man or woman in a Tuvalu tracksuit. I asked the Samoan contingent if they had a contact and they were no help. “We don’t fight against them, unless it is the Pacific Games” I was told. Tuvalu did have a beach volleyball pairing, but I ran out of time and could not go and investigate further.
Back in 1996 at the Atlanta Olympic Games, Paea Woflgramm from Tonga, the fighting king of all islands in the Pacific Ocean, met Wladimir Klitschko in the super-heavyweight final. Pea was a substantial underdog, but he had the heart the size of a small canoe. I spoke to him the day before the final and he told me that Tongans are proud people, brave people, natural warriors. “The mountains are in our hearts,” he told me. The following day, he chased Big Wlad all over the ring. He won an Olympic silver medal for Tonga.
There will be, one day, a new Paea in the Commonwealth Games. Perhaps, who knows, it was Leatialli Afoe. We will never know.