The president-cum-sportsman who lifted a nation… and he’ll be back next year to cheer on Nauru in Glasgow
As the Queen’s Baton begins it’s 123,000-mile journey around the 70 nations and territories of the Commonwealth, STEVEN DONN speaks to the sporting hero of the smallest nation competing in Glasgow next year and discovers a remarkable tale of medal glory and political intrigue.
One wonders if Barack Obama had done his homework on his new acquaintance. Standing between the American President and the First Lady was the diminutive leader of a tiny Pacific island, in New York to address the United Nations.
It may have looked like any another photo opportunity as the 64th UN General Assembly got underway but Marcus Stephen, then president of Nauru, is a man – and sportsman – less ordinary.
That day, back in September 2009, Stephen would make a moving speech on the difficulties faced by countries such as his in the face of economic hardship and climate change. It wasn’t the first time he had carried the weight and hopes of his homeland on his broad shoulders.
Come some way: Marcus Stephen, then president of Nauru poses with Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle
Over 20 years earlier, Stephen had left Nauru and headed for Australia on a government scholarship. It would be the catalyst for the most remarkable of sporting careers, one which would eventually lead him into the political arena.
‘I went on a scholarship to St Bedes College in Melbourne,’ the 44-year-old recalled. ‘As well as weightlifting, I was interested in Australian Rules Football. I was also playing rugby union and cricket. I was even vice-captain of the rugby team.
‘After about six months, I wasn’t allowed to play any other sport. I went to the cricket team and they said I couldn’t play. I went to the rugby team and they said I couldn’t play.
‘I was wondering what was going on because I was vice-captain – I should have made the side pretty easily.
‘So I went back and did weightlifting and later on found out that my coach had set it all up. I was 16 at the time.’
Four years later and the Commonwealth Games were coming to nearby Auckland. Stephen’s talent had been recognised quickly and he was training with the Australian elite.
However, there was a hurdle to his participation in New Zealand – Nauru, although a Commonwealth member, did not have a Commonwealth Games Association (CGA). With a population of under 10,000 and, up until that point, no elite athletes, it had never been needed. Now, one would have to be created if Stephen was to compete.
‘I was 20 years old when the Commonwealth Games came to Auckland in 1990,’ he said. ‘It was interesting because, at that time, we weren’t a member of the Commonwealth Games family.
‘A few days before the Opening Ceremony, they had their annual general assembly and Nauru’s application was thankfully accepted. We had never participated before then. It was so big for us. Up until then, it had been too big.’
And, for Stephen, it was about to get bigger.
‘In my first Games, I won one gold medal and two silver,’ he said. ‘I think that was a big surprise, as I was not ranked in the top three in any of the disciplines (the 60kg snatch, 60kg clean and jerk, and the 60kg combined).
‘To come away with those medals was really a fantastic result.
‘Back home, the nation went crazy. There was a national holiday named after me the next day.
‘When I came back to Nauru, there was a national parade. It was just unbelievable. You couldn’t imagine what it was like – nobody could imagine what it was like. There was a very big reaction from the whole nation.’
For some, being a national hero might have been enough. However, for Stephen, this was just the beginning.
He expected better – and demanded it of himself. And the standards he set, following that first Games, are still the benchmark for the Nauru athletes to this day.
‘For me personally, the 1990 Commonwealth Games was a success but it was also disappointing,’ he continued. ‘It was disappointing because I could have won three golds. I missed a couple of lifts. So, for the next four years, it sucked!
‘I said, at the next Games in Canada, that’s it – they are going to be all mine. It made me really determined to train harder and improve. And, of course, in 1994, I won three golds.
‘I was lucky because, in the run up to Victoria, I’d injured both my wrists. In fact, two weeks before, I couldn’t lift anything above my head — that’s how painful it was.
‘So I took some painkillers and then put a whole tape around each wrist. I just managed to get through it – although afterwards both my wrists were double the size.
‘Before then, I’d also competed at the Olympic Games in Barcelona for Samoa, as Nauru had no Olympic Committee. They had thought it would be a tragedy if one of the best athletes in the region couldn’t compete, so we made some arrangements for our two countries’ leaders to meet.
‘I became a Samoan overnight and they gave me a passport. I was really grateful – and I am still a Samoan now. I finished in eighth place.
‘At the Commonwealth Games in 1998, I again won three golds and defeated the Olympic and World champions to do it, which was pretty special. In 2002, I won three silvers but I had almost retired in 2000 after the Olympics.’
Seven Commonwealth gold medals were accrued in weightlifting, along with another five silvers, over the space of 12 years by Stephen. Three Olympic Games refused to yield a title but a world championship silver was another fitting prize for this most inspiring of athletes.
He had served his country with distinction – but, as he was soon to discover, the great and good are rarely allowed time to rest.
‘I retired following the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester – the body was too old to continue with all the hard training – and the next year I was elected as a member of parliament,’ said Stephen, whose father, Lawrence, had also been a politician. ‘It wasn’t really to follow in my father’s footsteps, though.
‘The country was in a lot of financial mess and there were a lot of problems. The people were demanding changes.
‘I was approached to stand for my constituency. In the 2003 election, something unprecedented happened. There was a 90-per-cent change in parliament. There are only 18 members of parliament – 15 of them were new and I was one of them.
‘When the people come to your house and they want to you stand and your country is in a lot of trouble, you can’t say no. That’s how I got into politics. I’m still involved. I was re-elected last June. I’m still young but I’ve now been involved in politics for over 10 years.’
Perhaps the one thing that has sustained him through both his political and sporting career is the determination to be the best. Regardless of the company, Stephen has always recognised the value of who he is and what he has achieved. There’s no ‘small nation’ mentality here.
‘I’ve met many people,’ he said. ‘I’ve met presidents. Probably my biggest thrill was when I met (the late former IOC president) Juan Antonio Samaranch in 1994. To me, he was a leader that I always looked up to.
‘Of course, it’s nice to meet these people, like the Obamas. But, to me, they are leaders of their country – I’m also a leader of my country.’
Stephen will be in Glasgow next year in his role as president of his country’s CGA and he’s confident they will continue to build on his legacy. After all, this is a nation that has won 28 medals since 1990, including 10 gold. Most of them coming, unsurprisingly, from weightlifting.
‘I always look forward to the Commonwealth Games,’ said Stephen. ‘We haven’t missed out on a medal since we became a member. And we have only missed out on a gold medal at one Games since 1990. It’s something we have a lot of pride in.
‘We feel, pound for pound, on a population ratio, we are the strongest, most successful country because we have never missed out on a medal. And we appreciate the value of that medal.
‘There are countries bigger than us who don’t win any medals. We always target gold, silver and bronze. That’s why we never take a big team. We have very high qualification standards. We have a very proud history.
‘We might be a small nation of only 10,000 people but, from day one, we have set the bar very high.
‘I’m really looking forward to Glasgow — and to seeing that record continue.’
By Steven Donn