Taking the Norfolk back-door to the Games

GAMES FIT: 52-year-old Michael Donohoe is competing in badminton for Norfolk Island at the Commonwealth Games.
GAMES FIT: 52-year-old Michael Donohoe is competing in badminton for Norfolk Island at the Commonwealth Games.

Two years ago, in a bid to re-float the economy on tiny Norfolk Island, the immigration rules were loosened to essentially allow Australians and New Zealanders to turn up, and stay for good.

There wasn't a great deal of noise made about the change on the mainland but the island has tried to use its idyllic locale, cheap real estate and exemption from the Australian tax system as enticements to draw in new residents.

What they might have been better doing was running a high-profile advertising campaign like this: 'Move to Norfolk Island - get a free trip to the Commonwealth Games! As an athlete!'

A self-governing territory of Australia Norfolk - population 2000, give or take - has 24 of them in Glasgow competing in lawn bowls, badminton, shooting and squash, plus a handful of officials and coaches. Most are in their 40s, 50s, and even early 60s, thrust from their local associations into an international sporting arena for a week or so.

Most, also, aren't originally from the 34-square-kilometre volcanic island, where descendants of HMS Bounty mutineers moved from Pitcairn Island in the mid-19th century.

Many are from the mainland, or New Zealand, having moved there years ago for work, family or simply the location.

Norfolk's residence rules were once iron clad, an eight to 10-year process, but if the word gets around that Aussies and Kiwis can now just walk in - and onto a Commonwealth Games - team there mightn't be any room left.

"I don't want that to get out!" laughs badminton rep and plumber Richard Cribb after a defeat in the mixed teams event against Jamaica in Glasgow.

Cribb, covered in sweat and with a grin from ear to ear, describes himself as an "athlete in the loosest form".

Norfolk's badminton players play in a community hall that is also used for country music and ballroom dancing. Its ceiling is so low it severely limits where they can hit the shuttlecock and they apply the court lines with masking tape, laying it down before they play and taking if off after.

It's a long way from the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, where they're playing before a crowd of several thousand, with umpires and line judges - and a very high roof.

"It's a bit surreal and sometimes I think it's a bit wrong that we're here maybe," says Cribb, 43, who came from New Zealand and has lived on Norfolk for nearly 20 years.

"But the opportunity is there and we're certainly trying our best.

"There's five or six of us that play [at home] and that's our crowd, whoever is off the court.

"I played when I was young at school for quite a few years and after I left school, but I hadn't played for I don't know how long - 20 years? Then I've been on the island playing for about five years."

Locals need a residency stamp in their passport to be eligible for Norfolk's team but if athletes in Australia - at local, regional or state level, but well off wearing the green and gold - are thinking of packing their bags and heading to the dot in the Pacific in pursuit of sporting glory, they should beware turning up a month or two before the next Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.

The question of when people are eligible to represent Norfolk has been raised before, notably in a Supreme Court case in 2010 that blocked the selection of a couple of athletes because they did not meet residency requirements at the time.

One of them, Phil Jones, had moved from the mainland and has since been given the green light and is on the lawn bowls team in Glasgow.

Despite the rules being relaxed, Norfolk's chef de mission in Glasgow, Mal Tarrant, said athletes would not be chosen straight off the plane.

"Now it's opened up a little bit, the immigration, so it's a little bit easier to get your stamp in your passport," said Tarrant, who runs a carpentry business.

"But most of our organisations in amateur sports, we're still trying to keep a ruling that it's at least five years on Norfolk before you can represent us. So that stops that person not getting into the Australian side and getting a stamp and playing for us. That's not what we're about."

The other issue to keep in mind was that Norfolk's days in the Commonwealth Games may well be numbered.

It first competed in Edinburgh in 1986, but after the Melbourne Games in 2006 the federal government contemplated downgrading the island's status to a shire council, which would have stripped it of a place on the international stage.

Tarrant believes that is still very much on the cards.

"Everyone knows they're still trying to do it, take us over, and we're all worried," he said.

"But we don't know whether they can kick us out of the Commonwealth. We could go on for another three or four Games before anything is decided, you never know."

The knockers would argue their absence would hardly be noticed. Norfolk has won only one Commonwealth Games medal - a bronze in lawn bowls in Victoria, Canada, in 1994 - but on the heavy greens at Glasgow's Kelvingrove complex at least they have acquitted themselves well.

Its women's fours beat South Africa, which ended up winning gold, in the preliminary round, and Carmen Anderson - the bronze medallist from 20 years ago - reached the quarter-finals of the singles before defeat to the eventual winner.

In the men's pairs Tim Sheridan - who is Norfolk's sport and finance minister - and flag bearer John "Mutchy" Christian, who says he is a direct descendant of Fletcher Christian, gave Australia's Brett Wilkie and Aron Sherriff a real fright.

The going has been more difficult across town at badminton where in preliminary mixed teams contests against South Africa, Jamaica and Singapore, Norfolk didn't win a game, let alone a match.

Among its line-up is Terry Gray, 50, who was once a girls junior champion in New Zealand but hadn't played for 28 years until taking up the game again three years ago when she learnt Norfolk would be entering a badminton team for the first time in Glasgow.

Teammate Jo Snell, who runs the local badminton club and with her husband owns and prints the island's newspaper, convinced her to pick up a racquet again.  

"She actually went to Delhi doing archery and she went and watched badminton there and she saw a team that wasn't that strong, so she thought 'if they can do it, well maybe we can'," Gray said.

"We have trained really hard to get here, as hard as anyone else, but at a different level, that's all."

Another in the team is 52-year-old Michael Donohoe, who was born and raised in the London suburb of Tottenham and moved to Norfolk 15 years ago to work on an under-sea cable between Sydney and the island.

"I had to go look after it for three years and never came home," he said, after teaming with Snell before a full house at the badminton hall in Glasgow's east end.

"It's phenomenal, we're here for the experience. We know we're not going to win - we're here to steal points truthfully. And if we won a game we'd be ecstatic."

Stationed on court four against Jamaica, the Glasgow crowd cheered boisterously for every point they did win, and Gray gave a glimpse of her past under-age success when she shot to a lead in the second game of her match against Ruth Williams, who at 25 is half her age. 

A small contingent from Norfolk also rode every point no matter the inevitability of the result.

Not only does everyone know everyone on the team, everyone knows everyone on the island.

Most also knew Janelle Patton, the Sydney woman killed in 2002 in the island's first murder in 150 years, and were interviewed by police.  

"Everyone would have known her and over that whole situation we all had to get together and give evidence and give stuff like that," Tarrant said.

"We had lots of things we all had to do - like fingerprints - as a community, just to clear us all.

"It was a big thing back then, and for them to get someone was very good. We'll always remember her - a lot of people were very close to her, even those who are part of the team."

The Commonwealth Games, to the people of Norfolk Island, is also a very big thing, Tarrant argues.

You might think that with spots in the team up for grabs every four years the entire population would be ultra fit, banging out beach sprints every morning and trying their hand at every Commonwealth sport under the sun.

That's not exactly the case but, at the same time, they are not in Glasgow to be seen simply as a novelty either.

"People might shrug it off and say 'they're just going away to have a trip'," Tarrant said.

"But to us it's not like that. It's very serious stuff for all of us."

Sydney Morning Herald