For some, just getting to the Olympics is a victory

Society Materials 20 August 2008 06:37 (UTC +04:00)

(dpa) - Some countries competing in the Beijing Olympics have worked years to get here and for them, while no medals are in the picture, just being here makes them proud.

The Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, for example, are two small countries in the Pacific which are participating in the Olympics for the first time.

"For us, it's taken half a century to get here," said Anthony Muller, chef de mission for the Marshalls. "You have to be at all the regional, subregional and world tournaments."

His country's Olympic committee sent five athletes, while others, like Nauru, sent only one.

While some athletes are invited by the International Olympic Committee to participate because the IOC reserves spots in track and field and other sports for athletes from small countries who performed well in tournaments, others are here solely on merit - meaning they are among the best in the world.

Some of these athletes ranked among the top 10 in the Olympics while others came close to clinching medals - not small accomplishments considering that they are lucky to have an annual training budget of 100,000 dollars, compared to millions of dollars for big countries.

Dika Toua from Papua New Guinea took 8th place in the women's 53kg weightlifting competition while her countryman Ryan Pini made it to the finals in the 100 meter men's butterfly, swimming in the same pool as Michael Phelps and coming in 8th.

The pressure for athletes in small countries can be intense.

About half of the 180,000 population in Western Samoa was watching when Ele Opeloge, 22, was competing in the +75kg women's weightlifting category. She dropped the 150kg weights one second too early and improperly when she felt a sharp pain in her back. In the final rankings, she lost out by only one kilogram to the eventual bronze medal winner.

"It's one of those things. We had it, but we lost it," Opeloge said, looking disappointed and almost ashamed.

But following an outpouring of support from family, friends and fans, she added: "The main thing is to come here for the Games. It's a privilege to come here. Not just anyone can come to the Olympics."

For small countries, the biggest challenge is not lack of talent, but insufficient funding and support for domestic sports programmes, delegates said.

The government provides no funding in some countries, so they must rely on scholarships from the IOC or donations from local businesses.

The lack of or insufficient sports facilities is also hindering some athletes from training at the elite level.

"You have a lot of athletes who have potential but not facilities. We don't have track and field, we're currently running on grass fields," said Terry Sasser, secretary general of the Marshall Islands' National Olympic Committee.

This forces many athletes who do have the ambition to go to the Olympics to train for months or years overseas, away from their families.

Strengthening sports programmes will not only benefit Olympic athletes and aspirants, it will help youngsters in these countries, he and others said.

"Sports has an immediate impact on these countries. We can have a basketball court and crime immediately goes down," said Sasser.

Athletes in smaller countries often come from humble backgrounds.

"Most of the athletes we have, they work in their family's farms growing taro, coconuts, bananas and pineapples," said Sebastian Kolhase, chef de mission for Western Samoa, which sent six athletes to the Beijing Olympics.

"We as the sporting body raise funds for them, but they still have to contribute for uniforms and other expenses."

Some like taekwondo athlete Anju Jason from the Marshalls work full-time in a Chinese restaurant to support himself and pay for training.

Chinese sports fans in recent days launched a campaign online to show support for Iraqi athletes after one athlete told local media she risked her life to buy a pair of running shoes in a second hand market in Jordan, The Beijing News said.

Internet surfers donated their Olympic souvenirs, Chinese ornamental knots and other gifts to Iraq's athletes and coaches, the paper said.

One blogger was quoted by the paper saying: "We should award a gold medal to Iraq because they have shown the Olympic spirit. They are true champions."

Even athletes who did not come here on merit said the experience of competing with top athletes from around the world taught them a lot.

"If there are world championships, I want to compete; I want to push myself," said Hadley Kerson, a swimmer from the Federated States of Micronesia