BIRMINGHAM, England >> On a beautiful day in Birmingham, Tuvalu’s beach volleyball team of Saaga Malosa and Ampex Isaac had fans and officials roaring in approval for both their skills and smiles.
The duo from the tiny Pacific island nation were beaten by Cypriot pair Antonios Liotatis and Charalambos Zorbis 21-13, 21-17 in an entertaining game where they showed great fight in the second set.
In pool matches against England, New Zealand and Cyprus, they failed to win a set, though they did play particularly well against the Kiwis and Cypriots at times.
Their presence at the Commonwealth Games drew great interest, predominantly because of the peril facing their nation, but also from a sporting lens.
It has been almost 10 months since Tuvalu foreign minister Simon Kofe’s speech to the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow caught the world’s attention.
Wearing a suit and tie and standing at a lectern set up in the sea, with his trousers rolled up, Kofe warned of the threat rising sea levels caused by climate change posed Tuvalu.
Raised sea levels and wild storms threaten the Tuvalu islands, which dot the Solomon Sea, and there are concerns the nation of 12,000 people will become uninhabitable.
Isaac, who works in construction, is hopeful that will not happen, declaring with spirit on Wednesday that “it will not sink” the world’s third smallest nation.
But he is aware there is a problem, with some beaches getting smaller, and understands Tuvalu’s athletes have an opportunity to add insight to the issues raised by Kofe.
“There is sea level rising going on. It is going on everywhere,” he said.
Marty Collins, an Australian volleyball coach who has worked with the Tuvalu pair for the past 12 weeks, said the speech made by Kofe inspired him to offer a helping hand.
Raised in Brisbane and coaching in a Danish league for much of the year, Collins said he had spoken with both the players and senior Tuvalu officials about the threat to the nation.
“Before I had anything to do with these guys, I remember seeing that footage of him standing in the water and delivering that speech about where he used to play as a kid growing up,” he said. “Now it is under water. It was a very powerful image to me. That is why I was happy to jump on board and work with this country while it is still there.
“(I speak) more with the older generations,” he continued. “They are a bit more open about it and talk a bit more about what it was like when they were kids and the places that are not there anymore.”
The importance of climate issues aside, having the opportunity to participate in an event as big as the Commonwealth Games is also important for the younger people of Tuvalu.
Isaac and Malosa, who is a fisherman, are athletes more than activists. They love their sport.
But they rarely have a chance to do anything more than train. Isaac, who is 25, has represented his nation for six years but played just six tournaments in that time.
At this stage, their next match will not be until the South Pacific Games next November in the Solomon Islands.
Isaac is hopeful that talk of invitations to play more regularly abroad will come to fruition and cited their improvement this week as a benefit of being allowed to compete.
“It was a good game against Cyprus. Maybe our best of this week. We feel so excited. I think our people must be happy,” he said. “This is the first time for our country in this sport to reach this level and to be here. It is an amazing achievement. Maybe they are proud of us.”
Collins, who hails from Ipswich on the fringe of Brisbane and represented Australia at university level, will return to work with the Tuvalu combination next year.
Collins believes beach volleyball has a real opportunity to take big steps in developing countries given the lower costs compared to other ball sports.
Rwanda showed talent when pushing defending Commonwealth Games champions Australia on Wednesday to qualify for the quarterfinals.
The Oceania Zonal Volleyball Association is hopeful of offering more opportunities to nations in the Pacific, at the very least, Collins said.
“The idea is that there are four strong tournaments in Oceania somewhere,” he said. “Whether that is Fiji, or New Zealand, or Australia, hopefully there are a few tournaments they can go and play. But obviously any travel costs a lot. You need backing. They just need the opportunity.”