Norfolk Island: the tiny territory that is a Commonwealth Games bowls powerhouse

About 2,000 people live on Norfolk Island, an Australian external territory 1,400km off the coast of New South Wales. Remarkably, 10 of them – fully half a percent of the entire population – are currently in Birmingham representing the island at the Commonwealth Games. All 10 are participating in the one sport in Birmingham: lawn bowls.

A 35 square kilometre dot of land amid the vast Pacific Ocean, between New Zealand and New Caledonia, Norfolk Island was initially settled as a prison colony in the early 1800s. It was subsequently abandoned and remained uninhabited until 1856, when the community of descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers – having outgrown the Pitcairn Islands, another British territory in the Pacific – relocated to Norfolk. Many Norfolk Islanders today are descendants of these settlers.

Norfolk was governed from New South Wales for decades, and formally incorporated into Australia in 1913. In 1979 the islanders were granted limited self-government by federal authorities, with an elected assembly responsible for governance of Norfolk. This unusual status allows it to compete in the Commonwealth Games – which, unlike the Olympics, permit participation from certain non-state territories. Hence Norfolk Island joined the likes of the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Saint Helena, Turks and Caicos, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man and Niue during the opening ceremony in Birmingham last week.

“Norfolk Island has participated in the Commonwealth Games since 1986,” explains the team’s chef de mission Sheryl Yelavich, an administrator at the local hospital. The island has competed at every Games since and won two bronze medals; the appearance in Birmingham is the island’s 10th Games. “We’re part of the 72 Commonwealth nations,” she says. “We’ve been in the Games before as an external territory of Australia – nothing has changed, it has remained the same.”

Nothing might have changed on the sporting front, but politically much has changed in recent years – making Commonwealth Games participation even more symbolically important for Norfolk Islanders. In 2015, self-government was abolished by the federal government, “to address issues of sustainability”, including financial difficulties, that had arisen. From 2016, Australian laws have applied to the island and travel between Australia and Norfolk is considered domestic. The island is represented federally through the Australian Capital Territory; new-elected representative senator David Pocock visited recently.

The end of self-government remains a sore point. Some locals have advocated for Norfolk Island to break away from Australia and join New Zealand, which might permit greater autonomy (as it does with Niue and the Cook Islands). Norfolk residents have even petitioned the United Nations, represented by eminent barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC, seeking to be added to the body’s list of non-self governing territories, which have rights to self-determination under international law.

In a recent column, former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope criticised the reforms for returning the island to “what is, in effect, colonial status”. He asked: “How long [does] the Commonwealth intend to deny the people of Norfolk Island a say in the governance of their community and the same democratic rights enjoyed by the residents of, let’s say, Canberra?”

Susie Hale, a school teacher on Norfolk and mother of Ellie Dixon, the youngest bowler on the team in Birmingham, says that the Games are an important opportunity to be represented as Norfolk Islanders. “To march under our flag and sing our anthem, when all other rights and liberties have been stripped from the Norfolk Island people, it’s one of very few opportunities when we get to publicly represent under our flag,” she says.

That’s particularly the case for descendants of the original Pitcairn settlers, who are represented in the team. “They’re very proud people and very proud to represent their club, their sport and their nation,” says Yelavich.

One Norfolk Islander to march under the flag in Birmingham was Shae Wilson, who bowled her way through to the semi-finals. Wilson, 23, is competing in her second Games – she is considered a rising star in the Norfolk lawn bowls community. Back home Wilson works as an early childhood teacher. “I just do a few hours at the local bowling club in between,” she says.

Wilson came up against an Australian opponent, Ellen Ryan, in the semi-final. In the Australia vs Norfolk grudge match, Ryan stormed out to lead 9-0, before Wilson came back to level the score at 17-all. But a “loose end” from Wilson (bowls is scored first to 21) saw the Australian win through. While Wilson was not able to add a third medal to Norfolk’s all-time record, after losing to Malaysia’s Sita Zalina Abmad in the bronze medal decider, she reflects positively on the Games.

“I couldn’t quite finish it off, but I nearly got there,” she says. “It’s such a great opportunity to compete with people from around the world. And it puts our island on the map. Obviously we’re tiny, in the middle of the ocean, and a lot of people don’t know we exist. It’s amazing to represent our home.”

Back in Norfolk, locals have been delighted by the success of Wilson and strong performances from other bowlers. “It’s an absolute buzz,” says Phil Jones, who won bronze at the 2018 Games in the men’s triples but is not competing this time around. “The whole island is behind this team. Everyone is watching, listening, talking. It’s all about the Commonwealth Games here at the moment.”

Even in Birmingham (or, more accurately, Leamington Spa, where the lawn bowls are being held), the support from home is being felt. “Obviously we know everyone, so everyone is very excited for us,” says Wilson. “Everyone is so supportive back home.”

Jones, an elder statesman of the sport in Norfolk, attributes the island’s bowling prowess to the opportunities presented by the Games – in addition to the world championships and regional tournaments, like the Pacific Games, which also welcome the territory. “Everyone wants that opportunity to test themselves,” he says. “All of our players want to be in the [Commonwealth Games] team – they see what’s ahead of themselves, they put in the extra practice.” It helps they enjoy it, too. “There’s just a love of the game,” adds Yelavich.

The lawn bowls competition at these Games concludes on Saturday, but the Norfolk Island team are already looking ahead to the 2026 Games in Victoria. Norfolk Islanders have previously competed in shooting at the Commonwealth Games, but the sport was dropped from the roster for Birmingham. Efforts are underway to push for shooting to be reinstated in four years’ time, which would be a boost for the islanders. “We’ll just have to wait and see what the scheduled sports will be for those future Games,” says Yelavich.

While Norfolk’s political status hangs in the balance – senator Pocock has said he will advocate for the islanders, and might use his power in the Senate to push for reform – the territory’s relative sporting success looks set to continue. Whatever happens politically, the lawn bowlers of Norfolk Island will be back at the next Commonwealth Games.