All athletes representing Malta were compliant with the Small Nations Games’ rules, the Maltese Olympic Committee has insisted, amid complaints that a number of participants had no connection with the island, while other athletes protested about being left out of the team.
The core of many complaints has been the nationalities of players who, despite having slight or no connection to Malta, were still able to compete under the red and white flag.
“We’ve had athletes with Maltese passports with [non-Maltese] names… so I don’t know why this time round we created this controversy,” said Mark Cutajar, chairperson of the local organising committee. He cited players such as Lu Li Ping, who won a gold medal for Malta in table tennis at the 1999 Small Nations Games. “Even when I was an athlete, we had foreign players on the team,” said Attard, once a track and field sprint athlete, who represented Malta at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It was the main controversy of a hugely successful tournament for Malta, which won an unprecedented number of gold medals across several disciplines on home soil. Not only did Malta go for gold but this year was the host country’s first top-two finish in overall medal standings, challenging Cyprus up until the final day of the week-long event.
To compete for a country, an athlete must either have lived in that country for three years or own a passport from the nation it is representing. Accusations against the Maltese organisers have claimed that certain competitors, such as some members of the table tennis squad, have been given passports in order to compete.
To compete for a country, an athlete must either have lived in that country for three years or own a passport from the nation it is representing
Although Cutajar and MOC director of sports Charlene Attard admitted that some athletes were indeed included by being given a passport, just as other countries do, they remained firm on their competitors’ connection to Malta.
“Ninety per cent of the medals being won are by Maltese, if not more,” Cutajar said. “For example, (gold medalist Croatian tennis player) Matija Pecotic gave a full interview speaking in Maltese.” Pecotic, who once ranked 206th in the world, has lived in Malta for the past 30 years and calls the country his home despite the non-native surname.
Still, some resorted to social media to criticise the Malta Olympic Committee regarding their choice of athletes.
Maltese table tennis player Andrew Gambina and coach David Pace criticised the MOC’s choice of players that made up the country’s squad, questioning where the committee’s intentions lie.
“I was recently left out of the small nation games squad, with two other Maltese players and two foreigners (with no connection to Malta) getting the nod to be part of team Malta,” Gambina wrote on Facebook. “I wish nothing but luck to my friends even though my omission was not based on results but rather how close you were to certain ‘decision makers’ within the sport.”
However, both Attard and Cutajar explained that criticism against the country’s squads are coming from those who expected a spot in the games but failed to qualify. Attard said no place is given, but only earned: “The concept that ‘I am the national champion so I should be in the small games’ is the wrong concept.”
“We had a shooter who made it to the World Cup final and qualified for the European games but didn’t make it into the Small Nations Games,” she said. “Yesterday, he was at the shooting range supporting his teammates and nation.”
Why so many golds?
Asked why Malta is now winning so many medals if bringing in foreign players has always been a strategy, the two officials explained there have been major improvements to the way players are trained and financially supported.
The key to that change is a €4.9 million investment by the government, they explained, which has helped athletes train full-time without worrying about their financial security, and will continue to do so for future events. The money has also helped athletes attend training camps and competitions abroad while also funding nutritionists, psychologists and other forms of local support for competitors.
The idea is to cultivate homegrown athletes by giving them international competitive opportunities that will bring those with a competitive standard up to the next level.
“This is a success story,” Cutajar said.
Attard underlined the need for a pool of athletes because putting the pressure on one person to win that elusive medal is a big task.
Maltese athletes know each other, so when they compete against one another, their competitive growth is limited.
For example, sisters Colette and Lijana Sultana were given the opportunity to train and compete in squash in Australia once they qualified for the funding. During GSSE 2023, they won gold in squash doubles, while Colette and Lijana faced off in the singles finals to grab both first and second places respectively.