First Olympians: The weight of a nation

Nauru's first Olympian has gone from lifting power to weilding power.

Marcus Stephen represented Nauru at two Olympic Games before embarking on a political career that included a four-year stint as President.

He burst onto the weightlifting scene as a fresh-faced 20 year old at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, winning gold in the men's 60kg snatch and silver medals in the clean and jerk and total.

Two years later he made his Olympic debut in Barcelona, but it wasn't for Nauru.

"The Government of Nauru wanted me to participate at the 92 Barcelona Games (but) little did they know that you have to be a member first," he recalled.

"So once they found out we made arrangements through our leaders, our President and the Prime Minister from Samoa, to see if they can help me out and make sure I participate at the Olympic Games."

With a Western Samoa passport in his back pocket, the country's newest citizen finished a credible ninth place in the men's 60kg weight class, lifting 20kg more than his efforts in Auckland two years earlier.

"The way I attacked it was I was looking at just performing and see how I go at the world stage," he said.

"Whether I represented Samoa or Nauru you find that for the Pacific Islanders we all barrack and cheer for each other, so we're all Pacific Islanders when we go to those big games."

Despite being a late call-up, Stephen said the other four athletes in the Western Samoan delegation welcomed him, and others, with open arms.

"I knew most of their lifters who qualified, so we shared the same room.

"I will never forget we had a visitor from one of the New Zealand boxers back in '92 and his name was David Tua. He was staying with us, with the Samoans, because he knew all the Samoans. It just goes back on that thinking that once you're an islander - he was an islander - and history has shown that David Tua became huge in boxing."

Fast forward four years to Atlanta '96 and Stephen admitted it was a very different feeling to finally compete for Nauru on the biggest stage in sport.

"Representing your own country is a very proud moment, especially it's our very first one, and also to be the flag-bearer it was a special moment for me.

"It is a bit different representing Samoa - having said that I'm very grateful for Samoa for giving me that opportunity back in Barcelona but yeah it was a really really special moment for me."

Stephen also represented Nauru at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney but, in both Atlanta and Australia, he was unable to perform at his best.

"I thought I could have done a bit better but...I just had a bit of bad luck with a very serious injury, especially in Atlanta.

"It's the only time I didn't score any total - and we call it the 'bomb-out' in weightlifting. It's the only time in my career and it was our very first Olympic Games, so it was a huge disappointment for me but...there was not much I could do when you have a really serious injury and you just train through it with all the pains and everything."

Stephen retired after the Sydney Games and but answered an SOS call to compete at the 2002 Manchester Commonweath Games.

"I had to lose 20 kilos - it was very hard but it was worth it...I'd been losing bodyweight for 20 years so I thought this is the time to really enjoy life so that was a challenge in itself, apart from training and trying to perform at your peak."

After winning three more silver medals to take his Commonwealth haul to 12 medals, including seven gold, Stephen put away the weight plates for good.

A year later he was elected to the Nauru parliament.

"My father was a politician for two decades and it was just the timing, I guess," he said.

"Families wanted me to continue that legacy so I took it on and I'm still here - I've been doing something like 16 years now as a Member of Parliament and held various portfolios in between."

Those roles included an almost four year spell as Nauru's President until his resignation in November 2011.

The MP for Anetan lost his seat at the 2016 election but was returned to Parliament three years later.

His time in politics has taken in claims of corruption, accusations of a coup, as well as the declaration of a state of emergency and a brief suspension from parliament.

But the 51 year old said he had learned that in politics you have to take the good with the bad.

"In life you all have your ups and down and I've accepted that fact, that's a reality of life and I've been able to move forward all the time. I don't like to be negative and ponder on negative things - I like to do things and move on and do as best as you can."

So what's harder: getting legislation through the house or pushing hundreds of kilograms?

"Politics and sports are a bit different," he lreplied with a chuckle.

"In sports you control your own destiny but in politics it's more a numbers and a group game, so you do a bit of lobbying here and there. It's a different game if you like to call it."

Marcus Stephen was elected Speaker of the Nauru Parliament in 2019 and said he has enjoyed keeping his fellow MPs in order and mentoring some of the newer faces in the house.

"We have a lot of young MPs as well and they come and ask for guidance and it's good to pass on your knowledge and experience to them, make sure that they do the right thing and you keep to standards and so forth," he said. 

"I have a role not only as speaker but also with the younger MPs to show them the ropes and do things properly."

He retired from weightlifting 19 years ago and has spent 15 years a member of parliament. Does he ever find himself pining for a more quiet life?

"We've had politicians who died in office - I don't like to be one of those Members of Parliament. I've done so much in my life that I'm quite happy to pass on the role to someone else, provided I've done my time and I think it's my call to say I've done enough and it's time to move on.

"Yes, there's always that thinking behind when is that right time because politics can get and take a lot out of you."

Marcus Stephen doesn't miss the blood, sweat and hours upon hours in the gym from his days as a competitive athlete.

Nauru's first Olympian said, instead of lifting weights, his exercise regime is now centred around lifting fishing rods out on the water.

"It's a really good way of exercising and enjoying it at the same time, so I do a lot of fishing here while we are locked down from the rest of the world.

"In a way it's not too bad for us - it has forced us to do things we couldn't do before: more time for the community, more time to look after people and do things in the community and enjoy the fishing."