Tuvalu’s beach volleyball team takes the stage for a country hit by climate crisis | Commonwealth Games 2022

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Jhe Commonwealth Games are renowned for some of the greatest sporting nations competing side by side with countries that rarely get a chance to show off on the international stage. But even by those standards, the beach volleyball opener was a sight to behold.

Ahead of England’s world number 60 beach volleyball team Javier and Joaquin Bello were Ampex Isaac and Saaga Malosa from the islands of Tuvalu. The 4,000 spectators surrounding them were equivalent to around 35% of the population of Tuvalu, the third least populated independent country in the world with 11,000 inhabitants. “We’re not used to it,” Isaac said.

Their path to this moment was unique. Isaac, a former indoor volleyball player, joined forces with Malosa two months ago. They were bronze medalists at the Pacific Mini-Games in June, a multi-sport event between small territories in Oceania.

They had a few training camps in Australia, but back home in Tuvalu, not a single beach volleyball court existed. “We have beaches but they are sloping,” Isaac said. “We didn’t really manage to get a court until last month when we were coming to the Games.”

Just having a place to train is a common hurdle for any budding athlete in Tuvalu, a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Australia. For the other athletes, like the rest of their five-man squad, the main sporting base is the runway at Funafuti International Airport, the only open space in the archipelago. As it receives two planes a week, the runway fills with young people playing football, rugby and enjoying life. Athletes carve out a space to train among the population.

Their joyful presence in Birmingham goes hand in hand with the stark reality of their country’s predicament: Tuvalu is in danger as the climate emergency approaches. The island sits three meters above sea level and scientists predict it could be submerged in 50 to 100 years. At Cop26 last year, Tuvalu’s foreign minister Simon Kofe recorded a speech standing knee-deep in the ocean off Funafuti, the capital, to highlight the problem. “We are sinking,” he said.

Over the past few decades, the climate crisis has dramatically changed the way of life in Tuvalu. Rising sea levels mean that salt water overwhelms its soil, forcing the island to import most of the food it consumes. Temperatures have risen and storms are more violent, but rainfall, which provides the majority of Tuvalu’s drinking water, is decreasing. Ciguatera poisoning from fish that ingest microalgae has become increasingly a problem.

The people of the country have had to come to terms with its stark future and some members of the team see their presence as an opportunity to draw attention to their plight.

It is also a reminder of the facade of fairness in international competition. Sport is not a meritocracy when there are huge disparities in wealth and facilities, with the significant funding and top-notch facilities of athletes from countries like Britain and Australia in stark contrast to the playing conditions of many others.

But it is an opportunity. On the court, they prevailed, remaining competitive until the end against a distinguished professional duo. The Tuvalu duo performed with smiles on their faces, pumping their fists and cheering each other on throughout.

Tasked with finishing the majority of their attacks and managing the forecourt, Isaac continually showed his cunning, skillfully handling the ball around the pitch.

Tuvalu kept the competition close early on and had their best spell in the second set, bringing the score from 4-10 to 9-11 and drawing cheers and support from the crowd. They lost 21-10, 21-12 and came away with their smiles still intact.

“It’s a very important part of us. Representing our small population. We’re not even representing Tuvalu but the whole of the Pacific Islands,” Isaac said.

Before the Tuvaluan couple arrived in Birmingham, they knew next to nothing about the city. Isaac laughs noting that he knew Aston Villa, but not Birmingham. By the time they left the arena, they had learned enough: rain began to fall on the temporary stadium, covering the thick sand of the makeshift beach.

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