At the Rio Olympics, there are the usual powerhouses:
Team USA, with 554 athletes. Australia, with 420. China, with 401.
And then there are the tiny countries: overwhelmed, but proud.
I went on a quest to find the tiniest of the tiny countries at the Summer Games. And I happened to find the delegation at the Olympic athletes’ village, speaking a mashup of English and Nauruan.
That’s right, the south Pacific nation of Nauru, the world’s smallest island state, wins gold for being the smallest country by population at the Olympics. (Monaco is smaller in area, but has more people.)
The athlete delegation from Nauru: a grand total of two.
Just how small is Nauru?
“About 10-, 11,000 people. Twenty-two square miles. It’s very small,” the president of the Nauru Olympic Committee, Marcus Stephen, says. He’s a three-time Olympic athlete himself in weightlifting.
Looking around him, he says, “I think you have more people here at the Olympic village than the whole population of Nauru. That’s how small we are.”
Team Nauru’s chief of mission, Sean Oppenheimer, chimes in: “Each seating at the dining hall is like feeding our entire country!”
To find Nauru, go out into the south Pacific from Australia, and keep going: about 1,600 nautical miles. Nauru is just south of the equator.
It’s a poor island, ringed by a coral reef and littered with abandoned phosphate strip mines.
“You come to an event like this, and you see so many big countries,” says Oppenheimer. “They’ve got hundreds of athletes, people that you see on TV. And yet, here we are! Most likely half the people that are at the games probably have never heard of Nauru!”
And I’d wager that’s a generous estimate.
Team Nauru is hard to miss at the village with their striking gold and violet uniforms patterned with images of string figures. It’s a kind of intricate cat’s cradle, a traditional art in Nauru.
The Nauruan artisans weave loops of string around their fingers and create all kinds of shapes: they might be birds, fish, or stars.
The pattern on the Nauruan uniform is a kind of native mat, and Nauru’s two Olympic athletes are wearing it with pride.
One is Elson Brechtefeld, 22, a weightlifter. He’s 5-foot-1, 123 pounds.
Weightlifting is big in Nauru; Brechtefeld started training when he was just 10. For him, the Olympics are a great equalizer.
“Yeah, everybody’s equal,” he says. “No one is different.”
But it was a Chinese weightlifter who ended up winning gold in his weight class. Brechtefeld ended up toward the bottom of his group.
He hopes to compete in the next Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
His teammate on this roster of two, Ovini Uera, competed in judo in the 90 kg weight class. He made it to the round of 16 before he was eliminated.
Uera says everyone back home was awake at three in the morning watching him on TV. He’s a hero in Nauru.
And with his Olympics over, he doesn’t need to worry about weight control — he can eat whatever he wants.
So what does an Olympian from Nauru crave most?
“Probably Mac’s,” he says, looking longingly at the golden arches nearby in the athletes’ village. “We don’t have that back home.”