Will Malta ever make it to the Olympic podium?

Minnows San Marino and Bermuda won medals at the Tokyo Olympics, something that keeps eluding Malta. Luke Vella tries to understand why Malta’s medals bureau remains empty

Team Malta at the Olympic cermonry
Team Malta at the Olympic cermonry

The sporting minnows of San Marino and Bermuda won medals at Tokyo. Iceland qualified for the World Cup. All over the world, the outliers of the global contest for human achievement manage to surprise the world with champions of their own. But for tiny Malta, an island-nation that often prides itself of its skilled human resource, sporting greatness eludes it.

Like the fate of its national football team, which in the past suffered dishonourable defeats at the hands of merciless European giants, Olympic success seems to mirror the island’s lack of champion output. The few footballers that make it into European leagues, the Carmel Busuttils, the Michael Mifsuds, the André Schembris... those are few and far in between, every generation producing just one star.

Malta has gone 93 years waiting to clinch some form of Olympic accolade, and despite the island’s drive for sporting excellence, the prospect of the Maltese flag to ever show up on an Olympic podium appears daunting if not impossible.

In this year’s Tokyo games, Malta was represented by just six athletes who competed in athletics, badminton, swimming, shooting and weightlifting. It was a mix of very young and more experienced athletes. Swimmer Andrew Chetcuti was in his third participation, and shooter Eleanor Bezzina at her second; while it was a first for 16-year-old swimmer Sasha Gatt, sprinter Carla Scicluna, Malta’s first Olympic badminton player Matthew Abela and the first Maltese weightlifting participant Yasmin Zammit Stevens.

Chetcuti finished second in the 100m freestyle heats but did not progress to the next round. Bezzina finished 26th in the 10m Air Pistol Competition, and then 17th and 41st out of 44 in the qualifying 25m Pistol events. Gatt finished sixth out of seven in the 400m freestyle heats, and third out of three in the 1,500m freestyle heats. Scicluna qualified to the first round for the 100m sprint, finishing eighth, while Abela, ranked globally at 33, lost 2-0 to the world’s number 10.

Zammit Stevens placed third in a group of four athletes and broke the national 105kg clean-and-jerk record. Her coach,

Yasmin Zammit Stevens. Photo: Malta Olympics Committee
Yasmin Zammit Stevens. Photo: Malta Olympics Committee

An impossible dream? 

Her coach, Jesmond Caruana, is also the president of the Malta Weightlifting Association. Satisifed with her result, Caruana points out how difficult it is for a European weightlifting athlete to make it to the Olympics, with only four Europeans are chosen per weight category. But he also admits being sceptical about Malta’s chances of ever winning a medal for weightlifting at this level of the sport.

“The way things stand, it is almost impossible for a Maltese athlete to train full-time professionally and within a professional setting,” he said. “The best young Maltese talents in weightlifting do quite well, as there is a level playing field at that age with all children being in school. But the older they grow, the more difficult it becomes for them to keep up with the pace, as almost no Maltese athletes become professionals.”

Zammit Stevens herself has had to make a huge financial sacrifice and train full-time to continuously improve her performances. And still it’s not enough to be at par with the best athletes. “Italian weightlifters train professionally and live within the Olympic centre,” Caruana said. “They are constantly supervised by a team of doctors, psychologists, physiotherapists and nutritionists.”

Not even national investments like Malta’s flexi-training scheme, where athletes train professionally in their sport for a number of hours per week, appear to be helping. Caruana says that it is still nowhere near enough for athletes to reach their top game.

“The best way forward would be to follow the example of other small nations and export our best talents abroad, where they could train as real professionals,” Caruana said. “Yasmin has been taking part in training camps abroad but regretfully most plans were disturbed during the pandemic.”

The Malta Olympic Committee’s director of sport Ivan Balzan says many fail to understand “the unbelievable personal sacrifices” of athletes, coaches, parents, but also sporting federations. “All this is done out of sheer passion and total dedication,” Balzan said, who could however not hide his disappointment with the Tokyo results. “Although not sufficient, the commitment and dedication that athletes showed is not to be questioned.”

Clearly, winning a medal will require more than passion and dedication.

Body and mind

“Doing sport at a high level, whether professional or semi-professional, can be very stressful and anxiety-provoking. A high number of athletes experience high levels of anxiety in the months leading up to a top-level competition,” the sports psychologist Dr Adele Muscat told MaltaToday, who also lectures in physical education and sports. Muscat spent 13 years working at the MOC, having also competed in two Olympic Games, two Commonwealth Games, one Mediterranean Games, and several Games of Small States. As the sports psychologist for the national sports school, Muscat knows how difficult it is for athletes to train hard while maintaining a healthy-life balance.

Dr Adele Muscat
Dr Adele Muscat

“Most athletes have to deal with their work or studies, family and social life, apart from life challenges in general. And there was the COVID-19 pandemic and the psychological challenges that athletes had to face, when not being able to train and compete properly.”

When the Olympic games were postponed in 2020, Muscat was concerned at how this would be a challenge for athletes preparing the Olympics since they might not have planned to spend another year fully focused on the games. “Of course, you will have one or two that may say ‘It may be an opportunity for me to get even better by the time the Olympics is back’. But for the majority, it is a negative experience,” Muscat told MaltaToday.

But this year’s Tokyo games were also highlighted by the issue of mental health, when American artistic gymnast and reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles, pulled out at the last minute from the women’s gymnastics team final.

“Athletes must be supported,” Muscat said.

“The first way is through counselling, especially for high-level athletes, and the second is mental skills training for better concentration and anxiety management.

“Top-level Maltese athletes can access such services in Malta if they so wish, either through the MOC or the Football Association or Malta Football Players Association. Student athletes at the University of Malta can seek support through the Student-Athlete support programme at the University of Malta and young athletes at the national sport school also have access to a sport psychologist. I’m of the opinion that more importance is to be given to sports psychology and supporting the elite athlete psychologically.”

A €5 million plan

The need to give athletes the right mental support still needs to be supported by a structure that allows them to become elite performers in their sport. The MOC bravely says it “will not shy away from addressing the weaknesses and will continue its work amongst these athletes”

Yet four years ago, Balzan was asked by the Maltese government to produce a strategy highlighting what was needed to achieve better results: he said it would cost the State €5 million for a system that would create a difference, with professional coaches and a proper talent identification programme starting from a very young age, similar to a tested system used in Australia and Iceland.

“Sporting education needs to start from a young age if athletes are to be helped in combining sport and academia to ensure that athletes have a fall-back plan once a sports career is over, Balzan said. “The MOC’s Youth Development Scheme focuses on talent identification and a long-term athletic development plan for the identified athletes.

Selected athletes are given access to funding, a selection of services including nutrition, psychology, coaching as well as regular functional diagnostic laboratory testing. The progression of each athlete is monitored closely to ensure that objectives are being achieved.”

Balzan is confident that the results will one day come.

But Olympic champions are not created overnight.

“The Games of the Small States of Europe in 2023, in Malta should reap some positive results and surprises, but the main goal is to provide high level athletes who will produce encouraging results. Paris 2024 will be a good start.

“A medal in the Olympic Games will eventually happen, but only if all stakeholders come together to ensure that a coherent effort is put in for an implementation of a long-term vision for sport.”

Jesmond Caruana
Jesmond Caruana

An uphill battle

A recent study by one of the Ministry of Educations’ educational officer Kevin J. Azzopardi analysed the performance of small states in the Olympic summer games and the hurdles their athletes have to overcome.

Over the span of more than a century, only 16 out of 48 small nations have ever managed to win a medal, with the grand total amounting to 44.

Bahamas tops the list with a total of 16 medals, with 14 of them arriving from athletics alone, and they are followed by Iceland with four. Below is the list of all medals won by the small states throughout the history of the Olympic games:

The smallest state to ever win an Olympic medal, prior to Tokyo 2020 was Bermuda, with a population of 62,278, but San Marino managed to overtake them in Tokyo with roughly half of the population (33,600).

Overall, some of the best results for the small states, have arrived in the new millennium; with nine medals arriving in Tokyo 2020, five in Sydney 2000, and four in London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016.

In Tokyo, the Bahamas won two gold medals in athletics, with 25-year-old Steven Gardiner in the men’s 400 metres and Shaunae Miller-Uibo in the women’s 400 metres.

San Marino made history by winning two medals in shooting. 33-year-old Alessandra Perilli claimed the bronze medal in the women’s trap event and then won a silver when teaming up with 38-year-old Gian Marco Berti in the trap mixed team. The Sammarinese continued to feature in the news, as in the men’s Freestyle 86kg, 24-year-old wrestler Myles Nazem Amine, claimed the bronze medal.

Bermuda managed to bag its first ever Olympic gold medal, when 33-year-old Flora Duffy managed to beat all other 53 competitors in the triathlon. 28-year-old Kirani James from Grenada managed to win a bronze, following his gold medal success in London 2012 and his silver medal in Rio de Janeiro 2016.

Fiji’s Rugby Sevens teams proved that the gold medal success that they had obtained in Rio de Janeiro was no fluke, as they managed to successfully retain it in Tokyo. The Pacific Islanders’ women Rugby Sevens teams proved their worth as well, as they managed to win the bronze medal.

Tokyo 2020 proved to be the best showing ever by the small states, as five countries (Bahamas, Bermuda, Fiji, Grenada and San Marino) snatched nine medals, with four gold, one silver and four bronze.

According to Azzopardi, these results prove that if talent is nurtured in the correct manner through substantial financial investment, scholarships and appropriate support by all stakeholders, such a positive trend may continue to persist and increase its rate of growth.