BIRMINGHAM – It has an area of 21 sq km – the size of Tampines – and a population of 11,000, which is enough to fill just 20 per cent of Singapore’s National Stadium.

But Nauru, the world’s smallest island nation, has been consistently and literally lifting above its weight.

Since its first Commonwealth Games appearance at Auckland 1990, it has won a medal at every edition and the story of how it continues to raise the bar could well be a Hollywood script.

Gaining its Commonwealth Games Federation membership just three days before the Auckland 1990 opening ceremony, Nauru sent a single weightlifter, Marcus Stephen, who ended up winning one gold and two silvers.

Afterwards, the 20-year-old regrettably turned down an invitation to have lunch with the Queen in Auckland as it clashed with his training programme. They did have a meal in Victoria four years later, when Stephen won three gold medals. In four editions, he amassed seven gold and five silver medals.

Stephen went on to become president of Nauru from 2007 to 2011, and is currently its Speaker of Parliament.

But the country continued to flex its muscles at the Games with its haul of 10 gold, 10 silver and 10 bronze medals contributed entirely by weightlifters.

The medal run has continued in Birmingham, with Maximina Uepa’s bronze in the women’s 76kg category. The pressure of maintaining the streak fell on the 19-year-old, who was the last lifter from her country to compete after six others did not win any medals.

Unfazed, she set new national records with her 96kg lift for snatch and 119kg effort in the clean-and-jerk for a combined 215kg on her Games debut. Canada’s Maya Laylor won gold with a new Games record of 228kg, while Nigeria’s Taiwo Liadi took the silver with a new Junior Commonwealth record of 216kg.

Nauru’s weightlifting exploits have inspired the tiny nation to believe it can achieve big things in the sporting world.

Uepa, who started lifting when she was 10, told The Straits Times: “I moved up from 71kg because I wanted to challenge myself. I did feel the pressure because I was the last from my country to compete and I had the last chance to win a medal here, so I am very happy and excited.

“The Commonwealth Games is a big deal for us and after achieving this, my dream is to go to the Olympics and win our first medal there. We train in a small gym currently and I hope we can get more support.”

Among the other aspiring lifters are Stephen’s 16-year-old granddaughter My-Only, who set a new national record in the women’s 55kg category with her 68kg lift for snatch and 86kg effort in the clean-and-jerk on her Games debut.

The oldest of seven siblings, who started lifting when she was 11, told ST: “I think people in Nauru like lifting because we want to feel like we are strong people.

“For me, I like being angry. When I get angry, I transfer it to the weights, and lifting makes me feel strong.

“Yes, there is pressure on me to perform because of who my grandfather is, but he is my role model. I watched him lift while I was younger and I try to copy him. He motivates me a lot and he tells me that when I go to the gym, don’t act like a woman, act like a man.”

Another man who played a big role in Nauru’s rise is Stephen’s former coach Paul Coffa. When he arrived in Nauru in 1994, there wasn’t even a single set of weights as “sport barely existed at all”.

Last modified: August 3, 2022