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IN BARBADOS they tell the story of the occasion during the Commonwealth Games when their weightlifter Anthony “Mango” Phillips got Prince Philip to discard his fork and eat with his spoon.

The story goes like this. It is the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. As is the custom, the Queen and Prince Philip have lunch with the athletes in the athletes’ village. Every country selects one athlete to dine with royalty and Barbados choose “Mango”.

He has come to the Games, having done well in the 1966 Caribbean and Pan-American Games and is the flag-bearer of the island. Two days previously he had won the silver medal in the bantamweight class.

On the day of the lunch Mango’s seat is next to Prince Philip. Mango is nervous and tells Steve Stoute, then chef de mission, that he would rather not sit next to the Duke. Could Stoute change places? Stoute, however, insists Mango sits next to the Duke.

The food is served. The first course is soup and Mango has no problem. But the next course foxes him and, after watching the Duke, nervously decides to discard the knife and fork and eat it with his spoon.

He then turns to the Duke and says: “Skipper [this is how Mango addresses everyone], skipper where I come from we use the spoon.”

The Duke looks at him, takes up his own spoon and, having had a mouthful, turns to Mango and says: “You know, Mango, you’re right. The food tastes much better with a spoon.”

As Stoute, who is now president of Barbadian Olympic Association, told me the story he gurgled with pleasure, reflecting both the tremendous feeling Barbados has for the Commonwealth Games, the bond it feels with royalty and the fact that the Manchester Games will be special for the island.

Barbados is sending a 100-strong team, the largest that the island, whose population is only 260,000, has sent to any Games. If three of their athletes return without medals, then the island will be surprised. Andrea Blackett won the 400 metres hurdles in Kuala Lumpur and, in the process, broke Sally Gunnell’s Commonwealth record.

Obadele Thompson won the 100m bronze in the Sydney Olympics two years ago and will hope to do better in Manchester. Barry Ford, competing in the cycling event, is another medal hopeful and there is also an outside chance for Michael Maskett the skeet shooter.

But beyond these medal prospects Barbados sees the games as a chance to advertise that the island has more to offer than just cricket. More so as that sport is going through a dip and being threatened by basketball. Although cricket is still the most important game, the Barbadians no longer dominate the West Indies team and, in the last two series, only one has made the side.

Cricket, nevertheless, remains the island’s most popular sport and recently a statue of Sir Gary Sobers was erected in one of its central squares and Sobers himself will be at Manchester to cheer on the team.

To an extent, the size of the team reflects the way the Commonwealth Games Federation chooses participants. There are no set Commonwealth Games standards for athletes to meet. They have only their own national standards to achieve. Stoute says: “These are more relaxed than Olympic standards which are more rigorous. In Sydney, we had just 35 athletes.”

There are some in Barbados who have voiced misgivings about sending such a large team, fearing they will win little.

Then there is the very novel way the Commonwealth Games Federation selects countries to participate in team sports. Barbados is planning to send a 15-strong hockey squad, although last night doubts were expressed about their ability to raise a team.

Barbados is hardly the strongest hockey nation in the Commonwealth. India is infinitely stronger but did not qualify because the Commonwealth Games Federation believes that, in team sports, every one of the six Commonwealth regions should have a team irrespective of world rankings. Barbados just pipped Trinidad and Jamaica to qualify for Manchester.

Similar considerations will see Barbados send a party of 16 netball players to Manchester. But if this weakens the overall team performance, what matters is that they have been able to compete at all. Although their government provide £4 million for sports every year, none of it goes to the Commonwealth Games party which will come to Manchester entirely funded by a lottery run by the Barbados Olympic Association.

Stoute says: “Government support is zero for us. Our lottery has been going for six years. We raise about £700,000. It is not easy but it has to be done. We are now talking to the Barbados Turf Club with a view to merging our activities and making sure we continue to raise this money.”

Stoute, charting how Barbados has progressed, says: “In Edinburgh we had 20 athletes, in Kuala Lumpur we had 60, in Manchester 100. This shows that, while cricket is still part of the culture, other sports are on the horizon. And these Games will show the Commonwealth that Barbados is about more than just cricket. We won three medals in Kuala Lumpur and I will expect us to do as well if not better.”

However, with no Mango among the competitors, Stoute does not expect anyone from Barbados to make the Duke change his eating habits.

© Mihir Bose

      

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