RIO DE JANEIRO — Running in Lane 8, Etimoni Timuani was the last one announced. He was wearing a sky-blue kit with matching running shoes. There was polite applause but no screaming and certainly no one waving the flag of his home country. In truth, the entire population of his native Tuvalu could fit in just a couple of sections of the Olympic Stadium stands.
Competing in the 100 meters alongside 86 of the fastest men on the planet, Timuani was a one-man Olympic team, the lone athlete from his small island nation to qualify. At the Opening Ceremonies eight days earlier, he was naturally his country’s flag bearer and easily marched as the smallest Olympic team at these Rio Games.
“We’re one of the smallest countries. He just makes us bigger than that,” said Tufoua Panapa, Tuvalu’s assistant secretary of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. “He makes us proud.”
Tuvalu is a tiny dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a few thousand miles in between Hawaii and Australia. The Polynesian nation comprises mainly of three small islands, easy to row past if you’re not looking for them. They total barely 10 square miles — about half the size of Manhattan — and the Tuvalu population numbers fewer than 11,000.
Growing up there, visiting Brazil, competing on such a stage, waving his country’s flag — it was unfathomable. Timuani called it “an honor to represent my country.”
“I came to expose my country, to [show] how is Tuvalu, where is Tuvalu,” he said.
Sport is more of a hobby than a pursuit there. Tuvalu natives play soccer, rugby and a cricket-like sport called kilikiti that is popular throughout Polynesian islands. The country didn’t have a recognized Olympic committee until 2007 and made its Olympic debut at the 2008 Beijing Games with a weightlifter and two sprinters. It sent three more to the London Games but only qualified Timuani for Rio de Janeiro. In its limited history, Tuvalu has never won an Olympic medal, never finished better than sixth in any heat, and no track and field athlete has advanced beyond the preliminary rounds.
Timuani was the country’s best and only shot this time around — but even he knew the unlikelihood of getting within shouting distance of the world’s fastest runners. If Usain Bolt is a blur of athletic potential, Timuani is a freeze frame of raw hope.
“He’s one of the best athletes in the country,” Panapa said, “and we can only find one or two. We are quite poor here; that’s why he was selected. He was definitely one of the best.”
Timuani played on Tuvalu’s national soccer team and gravitated toward track later than most Olympic sprinters. His best time in the 100 is 11.72 seconds, a blistering pace on his native island but several steps slower than the world’s best runners and more than two full seconds behind Bolt’s best mark.
Of the 22 runners in Saturday morning’s preliminary heats, only three came to Rio with personal-best times worse than 11 seconds. None was slower than Timuani’s.
So his expectations here were restrained. A year ago he competed at the world championships in Beijing, where he failed to advance out of the preliminary round. Just reaching Rio felt like an accomplishment.
“Right now, he’s an ambassador,” Panapa explained, “conveying to the world we are part of the Olympics and [part of] the world. Yes, we are looking up to [him] as someone who is displaying Tuvalu to the world, someone who has the heart to go there to compete with all the other athletes.”
On Friday morning, hours before Bolt & Co. would take center stage in the Round 1 heats, Timuani settled his sky-blue shoes into the running blocks and bowed his head. A gun fired, and the seven runners burst down track.
Timuani broke late and fell behind the field quickly. He never had a chance but still sprinted hard through the finish line. His time of 11.81 seconds was a full 1.28 seconds slower than the heat’s winner and tied with a runner from the Marshall Islands as the slowest in the 100 prelims.
His spirits were hardly shaken. “Today is good,” he said afterward, wiping sweat from his brow. “I’m trying my best for next time. I feel good.”
It was nearly 1 a.m. back home in Tuvalu, but he was hopeful his family and friends were able to watch. He knows he will be asked all about it for years to come.
“When he returns he has to go to the field and play, and the younger ones will look at him,” Panapa said. “It’s just a great motivation for the younger ones.”
Soong reported from Washington.