Our athletes excelled… despite the promised facilities which were never built

These outstanding achievements were all due to the blood, sweat, and tears of athletes who are ultra-dedicated, spending hours and hours training in their chosen sport • These excellent results were in complete contrast to the failure of the government to deliver on its promise of €42 million in new sports facilities

Over this past week, I cancelled all my appointments, took days off work, averted my eyes from the overflowing laundry hamper and left the house first thing in the morning to spend every day watching my favourite sport, tennis.

It was all worth it to be part of the excitement and experience everything first-hand.

The GSSE (Games of the Small States of Europe) have just been wrapped up, with Malta as the host nation for this edition. And what a thrilling edition it was.

At the time of writing, our country had won 23 gold medals, 14 silver, and 17 bronze. It is the highest record of medals ever (and with 10k being promised for each gold medal I have a feeling that by Friday the Sports Minister was getting palpitations).

These outstanding achievements were all due to the blood, sweat, and tears of athletes who are ultra-dedicated, spending hours and hours training in their chosen sport. In many cases, there are parents who have not only supported them emotionally but also financially by providing the funds for them to travel and compete abroad which is so essential to improve. In some cases, the whole family has even packed up and left Malta to ensure better prospects.

These excellent results were in complete contrast to the failure of the government to deliver on its promise of new sports facilities, namely:

- The €14 million Cottonera Sports Complex indoor pool

- The €16 million pool in Victoria, Gozo (€7 million over budget)

- The €3 million tennis complex in Pembroke (€1.6 million over budget)

- The €9 million indoor squash and weightlifting complex in Marsa

That is a total of €42 million of our taxes which were announced with great fanfare and meant to be spent as an investment not only for the Games but to upgrade our national sporting facilities in the long term.

Because all the deadlines were missed for these projects and with the Small Nations Games fast approaching, SportMalta was forced to enter into agreements with alternative venues. So instead of brand new facilities which are usually the norm when a nation hosts such international events, the swimming events have been held at the National Swimming Pool at the Tal-Qroqq Sports Complex (originally built for the 1993 edition).

And instead of the promised six new tennis courts at one venue and the 8 new squash courts at another venue, arrangements had to be made with the Marsa Sports Club where the tennis and squash competitions were held (harking back once again to 1993).

The squash doubles competitions were held at the Cottonera Sports Complex where a doubles court was built specifically for these games - making it one of the few new infrastructures which were ready in time for GSSE 2023.

The Marsa Sports Complex (which is often confused with the privately-run Marsa Sports Club) also had large sums injected to renovate the Matthew Micallef St John Athletics Stadium where track and field events are held. This too was finished in time and from all accounts, it has been upgraded to very high standards.

So why was there such a disparity in the way the various projects were handled? For several sporting disciplines, the missed deadlines effectively mean that in 30 years since the first Small Nations Games were held in Malta, nothing much has changed, which makes it more of a minor miracle that the results were so impressive.

There are many questions to be asked: who will be held accountable for the mismanagement and incompetence, which narrowly almost caused us to lose face as the looming international games approached? What happened to all the millions being funneled into these projects? And most crucially - will these projects ever be completed now that the Games are over and the urgency to get them ready has vanished? (Not that there seems to have been much urgency in the first place).

So now what…? Are we going to end up with useless White Elephants which are rarely used? Or will there be a flurry of activity so that they can be unveiled with great pomp and ceremony with fancy inaugurations just before the elections, with the government expecting us to be grateful because it actually did its job with our money?

Thankfully, every venue and the people running it rose to the occasion so it all came together in the end. But there were certain instances where things could have been organised so much better, and I do not know whether it is due to apathy or indifference or simply the wrong people placed in the wrong roles.

According to MOC Director Charlene Attard, “Preparations have been underway since 2017 when the Maltese Olympic Committee won the bid to host these biennial games.” 2017 is six years ago, so there was plenty of time to plan everything that needs to be done right down to the very last minor detail. With 1,000 athletes from nine countries descending on Malta, the logistics are obviously huge so it is imperative to get it right and be uber organised and efficient.

I don’t want to sound like a downer because on the whole, everything ran smoothly but this was undoubtedly due to the many volunteers who eagerly signed up wanting to help out for the love of sports and because they wanted to be part of this event which has not taken place in Malta since 2003.

There were a lot of entities involved: MOC, SportMalta, and the individual federations representing each sport, but I feel there were times when there was a certain lack of coordination between them.

From the people at the very top to those at the bottom of the totem pole, everyone needed to be assigned specific jobs to do, so that no one shirks their duties. With large-scale events, everyone has to take ownership of their individual responsibility to ensure that it will be “all right on the night.”

Let’s take one small example: the opening ceremony was impressive with a very well-spoken gentleman doing the voiceover to describe what was happening. However, when we saw the various athletes carrying the flame to light the torch, members of the general public who might not follow sports had no idea who they were because the voiceover suddenly stopped.

They did not even superimpose captions to put the athlete into context and why they were chosen for this honour. When we saw Helen Asciak and Carol Cassar Torregiani take centre stage to light the flame, we who remember their historic partnership and the number of medals they won in Ladies’ Doubles recognised them immediately, but to the ordinary viewer, they were just two women holding a torch.

It is these little details which make so much difference, and which separate something which is done pretty well, to something which is executed to perfection.

Another thing which lagged behind was the publicity. On Monday, the first day, I lost count of the number of people who told me they had no idea that the GSSE were taking place. There should have been much more regular visibility all over social media in the lead-up to the games so that people could plan and take time off to attend. If the public was not aware of the Games, that means you are doing something wrong and not reaching them.

Simply creating a  Facebook page and posting photos is also not enough. Anyone who is an admin on social media knows that you have to be on top of things. I saw comments on the GSSE FB asking for the schedule of games and for the venues, which remained unanswered. People learned that TVMSport was streaming the events from different venues only through word of mouth, when this should have been conveyed to the public by the organisers.

The publicity gradually improved and by Wednesday had gained a bit more momentum, especially as Malta started winning medals. However, the website needed to be much more efficient in real time especially when updating the number of medals and the scheduling of events (some disciplines were more efficient than others). On the day, we reached 12 gold medals, breaking our national record, all the news websites carried it long before the official website did.

There were also too many errors which remained uncorrected. For example, Francesca Curmi (our top lady tennis player) had her name misspelled as ‘Cumi’ for several days. The venue of Marsa Sports Club was wrongly listed as MSG (for Marsa Sport Ground) until the very last day. You may say that I am nitpicking, but if you cannot even get the details about your own country right, it demonstrates carelessness.

“U iva, everyone makes mistakes!” is the usual reply - yes of course, I make them all the time, but rather than the mistake which bugs me, it is the delay in correcting it which is annoying (or else never bothering to correct it at all).

I want to end on a positive note, because despite everything that could have potentially gone wrong, somehow there were enough people who cared enough, and who wanted to see Malta showcased as a country where sporting events of this caliber can be efficiently organised.

They too deserve a gold medal.