AAbout 2,000 people live on Norfolk Island, an Australian territory 1,400 km off the coast of New South Wales. Remarkably, 10 of them – a full half per cent of the total population – are currently in Birmingham, representing the island at the Commonwealth Games. All 10 compete in the one sport in Birmingham: lawn bowls.
Norfolk Island, a 35 square kilometer patch in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and New Caledonia, was first settled as a prison colony in the early 19th century. It was subsequently abandoned and remained uninhabited until 1856, when the community of descendants of the mutineers of HMS Bounty – having outgrown the Pitcairn Islands, another British Pacific Territory – resettled in Norfolk. Many Norfolk Islanders are descendants of these settlers today.
Norfolk was governed from New South Wales for decades and was officially incorporated into Australia in 1913. In 1979 the islanders were granted limited self-government by federal authorities, with an elected assembly responsible for governing Norfolk. This unusual status allows him to compete in the Commonwealth Games which, unlike the Olympics, allows participation from certain non-state territories. Norfolk Island was therefore joined by the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, St Helena, Turks and Caicos Islands, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man and Niue during the opening ceremony in Birmingham last week.
“Norfolk Island has competed in the Commonwealth Games since 1986,” explains Sheryl Yelavich, the team’s chef de mission, an administrator at the local hospital. The island has since competed in all the Games, winning two bronze medals. the appearance in Birmingham is the 10th games of the island. “We are one of the 72 countries of the Commonwealth,” she says. “We’ve been to the Games before as Australia’s external territory – nothing’s changed, it’s stayed the same.”
Nothing may have changed on the sporting front, but politically a lot has changed in recent years – making participation in the Commonwealth Games even more symbolically important for Norfolk Islanders. In 2015, self-government was abolished by the federal government “to address sustainability issues, including financial difficulties.” Since 2016, Australian laws have applied on the island and travel between Australia and Norfolk is considered domestic. The island is federally represented by the Australian Capital Territory; Recently, newly elected Representative Senator David Pocock visited.
The end of self-government remains a sore point. Some locals have advocated for Norfolk Island to break away from Australia and join New Zealand, which could allow for greater autonomy (as is the case with Niue and the Cook Islands). Norfolk residents have even petitioned the United Nations, represented by respected lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, to be included on the list of non-self-governing territories that have the right to self-determination under international law.
In a recent column, former ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope criticized the reforms for restoring “what is effectively colonial status” to the island. He asked, “How long [does] the Commonwealth intends to deny the people of Norfolk Island a say in the governance of their community and the same democratic rights enjoyed by the residents of, say, Canberra?”
Susie Hale, a Norfolk schoolteacher and mother of Ellie Dixon, the youngest bowler on the Birmingham team, says the Games are an important opportunity for Norfolk Islanders to be represented. “Marching our flag and singing our anthem when all other rights and freedoms have been taken away from the people of Norfolk Island is one of the few opportunities to represent publicly under our flag,” she says.
This is especially true for descendants of the original Pitcairn settlers represented on the team. “They are very proud people and very proud to represent their club, their sport and their nation,” says Yelavich.
One Norfolk Islander to march under the flag in Birmingham was Shae Wilson, who made it to the semifinals. 23-year-old Wilson is in her second game – she is considered a rising star in Norfolk’s lawn bowling community. At home, Wilson works as a tutor for young children. “I only do a few lessons at the local bowling club in between,” she says.
Wilson faced an Australian opponent, Ellen Ryan, in the semifinals. In the Grudge match between Australia and Norfolk, Ryan stormed out and led 9-0 before Wilson came back to level the score at 17-all. But a ‘loose end’ from Wilson (bowl scored first to 21) resulted in the Australian’s victory. Although Wilson failed to add a third medal to Norfolk’s all-time record after losing to Malaysia’s Sita Zalina Abmad in the bronze medal decider, she looks back on the games positively.
“I couldn’t quite finish it, but I almost did it,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to compete with people from all over the world. And it puts our island on the map. Obviously we’re tiny, in the middle of the ocean, and a lot of people don’t know we exist. It’s great to represent our home.”
Back in Norfolk, locals were amazed by Wilson’s success and the strong performances of other bowlers. “It’s an absolute blast,” said Phil Jones, who won bronze in the men’s treble at the 2018 games but is not competing this time. “The whole island is behind this team. Everyone watches, listens, talks. It’s all about the Commonwealth Games here at the moment.”
Even in Birmingham (or more specifically Leamington Spa, where the Lawn Bowls are held) the support from home is felt. “Of course we know everyone, so everyone’s very happy for us,” says Wilson. “Everyone at home is so supportive.”
Jones, a senior sports statesman in Norfolk, credits the island’s bowling prowess to the opportunities the games offer – in addition to the world championships and regional tournaments like the Pacific Games also welcoming the area. “Everyone wants to have the opportunity to test themselves,” he says. “All of our players want to be there [Commonwealth Games] Team – they see what’s ahead, they train extra.” It also helps them enjoy it. “There’s just a love of the game,” adds Yelavich.
Lawn bowling competition at those games ends on Saturday, but the Norfolk Island team is already looking ahead to the Victoria 2026 games. The Norfolk Islanders have competed in shooting at the Commonwealth Games before, but the sport has been dropped from the Birmingham squad. Efforts are being made to push the resumption of shooting four years from now, which would mean a boost for islanders. “We’ll just have to wait and see what the planned sports will be for these future games,” says Yelavich.
While Norfolk’s political status is at stake – Senator Pocock has said he will stand up for the islanders and use his power in the Senate to push reforms – the territory’s relative sporting success looks set to continue. Whatever happens politically, Norfolk Island’s lawn bowlers will be back at the next Commonwealth Games.