Commonwealth Games 2014: Niue hopes to make mountain bike debut

Rally on the Rock

When athletes from Niue appear at next year's Commonwealth Games, there will undoubtedly be some spectators who turn to their neighbour and ask 'where is that?'.

The answer is the South Pacific, with the island - built on an inactive volcano - located around 1,500 miles north east from its 'big brother' New Zealand.

Around 1,400 people call Niue home, with 20,000 more living abroad. Many of them live in New Zealand, as all Niueans are citizens of the country.

One man who is trying to put his nation on the map in Glasgow next year is Willie Saniteli.

He has spent 27 of his 53 years working as a car mechanic in Auckland. When he returned to his homeland in 2000, he was determined to "do something nice for my little country".

After spending a year and a half building a bar with rocks he found on the coast, he has become one of the leading entrepreneurs on the island with a chicken farm and a café amongst his portfolio of businesses.

He now hopes to make his mark on the sporting scene.

Niue was first represented at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester 11 years ago and has taken part in the athletics, boxing, lawn bowls, rugby sevens, shooting, weightlifting and wrestling competitions so far without winning a medal.

Saniteli is now playing his part to put another sport on that list - mountain biking.

He was involved in the Queen's Baton Relay celebrations as the baton arrived in Niue.

The baton, which carries a message from the Queen and is a symbol of the shared values of the Commonwealth, is currently travelling around the 70 nations and territories that make up the organisation.

It will then play a pivotal role at the opening ceremony of the Games in Glasgow.

Saniteli's inspiration to have Niue's inaugural competitor in the saddle follows a competition called Rally of the Rock, a mountain bike race on the island that was started in a bid to encourage tourism.

As a former rider and organiser of the event, Saniteli has recently recruited a small group of riders to train for Glasgow.

The Niue Olympic Committee, who are in charge of the island's participation at the Commonwealth Games, said it will send 26 athletes to Glasgow next year.

As well as mountain biking, they will compete in athletics, clay shooting, lawn bowls and weightlifting.

Saniteli said: "Mountain biking in Niue has started to grow in the last three or four years. Rally of the Rock has started to attract a lot of people over here and has got a few young people interested in it.

Around 10% of the entire population of Niue took part in the Queen's Baton Relay Sports Day earlier this week
Around 10% of the entire population of Niue, pictured here, took part in the Queen's Baton Relay Sports Day

"If we can get a young guy in the Commonwealth then we may attract a lot more riders to Niue to see our beautiful little country and we may have a lot more young people trying to be like that young guy. That is the main aim."

Niue's rugged terrain will help the mountain bikers train but a lack of competitive equipment is on Saniteli's mind. The bikes they use for training are hired from the local car rental company.

He added: "We don't have sandy beaches like other Pacific Island countries. It is 60km (37 miles) to cycle round the whole island. If you fall off your bike, there is no mercy from the rock.

"When you ride into the middle of Niue, you ride downhill. When you come to the coast of Niue, you go uphill. The great thing about mountain biking here is you go through some good rainforests.

"Most of the bikes are modern bikes, but they are cheap bikes. Sometimes it goes into gear, sometimes it doesn't.

"You guys are riding the 'McCoy', we are riding toys."

For Saniteli, one of the main problems for Niue is motivating potential Commonwealth athletes.

He intends to use his experiences from living in New Zealand, a fiercely proud sporting nation, to rub off on the locals.

He reflected: "We have a thing about sports - 'I am going to the Commonwealth next week, so I will start to training this week'.

"In mountain biking, I am saying we have got to get the finger out and start working now.

Willie Saniteli
Willie Saniteli

"Something like rugby - everybody would drop everything because the rugby team will represent Niue somewhere, so next week everyone will play rugby because they know they will be selected to go.

"New Zealanders are very competitive in what they do. I look at that, and I come back home, and I want my people to be like that - to be very competitive and passionate about Niue.

"If those guys in New Zealand, or anywhere in the world can do it, then why can't people in Niue do it?"

The island nation will determine who represents their country at mountain biking next year.

With such passion, Willie's enthusiasm as their trainer may just rub off on those riders. Who knows, there may even be an upset on the cards at Cathkin Braes.

Queen's Baton Relay: Glasgow 2014 has regular updates on the BBC News Channel, BBC World News and online.

Follow the baton's journey @BBCMarkBeaumont on Twitter and on Facebook

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