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‘Smallest nation with biggest heart’ set to keep pace with bigger nations

Monday 25 July 2022 | Written by RNZ | Published in Niue, Regional


‘Smallest nation with biggest heart’ set to keep pace with bigger nations
Flagbearer Olivia Buckingham, centre, with two relatives. Photo: Facebook / Team NIUE B2022

Affectionately dubbed the 'smallest nation with the biggest heart' Niue's 15-strong team have set off to Birmingham to face some of the mightiest nations in the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Team Niue includes 10 lawn bowlers, four boxers and one weightlifter. Among them is Premier Dalton Tagelagi who will be competing alongside his son in lawn bowls.

During his official visit to New Zealand, Tagelagi said it was important the 'Rock of Polynesia's' presence was felt at the games.

"I know the team has been training really hard," he said.

"It's pretty warm there just like in Niue. The grass is similar to what we have back home. Participation in these things is very important; it's one of these life experiences it's something you can't take away."

Ahead of their departure, Team Niue members gathered in Auckland to introduce the competitors and officials to one another.

When Olivia Buckingham heard she had been chosen as Niue's flag bearer, it was a celebratory yet bittersweet feeling.

"That became an emotional moment for me when they told me I was gonna be the flagbearer because my nana and grandad are not alive anymore. I know they're looking down but they're not here to witness it so yeah it was really emotional for me."

With roots in Avatele village, Olivia will also be competing in lawn bowls - a sport that her father introduced her to. While she's gone on to win gold medals, Olivia said lawn bowls hasn't come without its challenges.

"Look, I'm not gonna lie, bowls is a rich man's sport - it's a rich white people sport," she said.

"And I'm not racist or anything, but I did have a racist comment made to me about bowls. It's not a good feeling, so we go out there and we smash it for the Pacific nation.

Used to being 'behind the scenes'

As the sole weightlifter in Team Niue, Giovanni Toimata's curiosity to try the sport two years ago opened up doors to compete at a global level.

Earlier this year, Giovanni finished second at the Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand International.

Working as a fulltime rehabilitation specialist, Giovanni said being an athlete was something he was still getting the hang of.

"I've always been the one behind the scenes," he said.

"I was always the one that helps the athletes because part of my job was to rehab athletes and do a little bit of high performance stuff so to be on the other side of that, I think some people thought I was joking. That's one of the big things that I had to learn was actually putting myself first."

Niue weightlifter Giovanni Toimata far left with co-coaches Ramsi Edwards centre and Clarence Tong - off to Commonwealth Games July 2022
Giovanni Toimata with co-coaches Ramsi Edwards, centre, and Clarence Tong. Photo: Facebook / Team NIUE B2022

Taking up the mantle as the manager for Niue's boxing team has been quite a journey for Lorina Thompson. Niue's four-man boxing team includes New Zealand national champions Xavier Mataafa-Ikinofo and Duken Williams.

The pair, plus Travis Tapatuetoa and Deniro Armstrong Pao, are coached by International Boxing Association coach Lolo Heimuli.

Lorina said preparations for the Commonwealth Games have been hectic.

"Coming into these games it was all a learning curve to navigate all the administration, but then also the cost of a camp for four boxers.

"Our camp cost over $25,000; it's been a lot, it's been hectic, and we actually got our own international federation over the line just in time for the cutoff."

Niue boxing team, from left, Duken Williams, Deniro Pao, Travis Tapatuetoa, and Xavier Mataafa Ikinofo - off to Commonwealth Games
The boxing team, from left, Duken Williams, Deniro Pao, Travis Tapatuetoa, and Xavier Mataafa Ikinofo. Photo: Facebook / Team NIUE B2022

While expectations vary among Niue's athletes, Olivia said Niue's representation at the Commonwealth Games was already a win for the Pacific.

"It doesn't matter if you're Rarotongan, Samoan or Tongan, it doesn't matter - I hold the flag for them. I hold the flag for all our people."