Gibraltar an Island? No, but Let the Games Begin

MADRID — Gibraltar is a narrow peninsula at the southern edge of Spain, dominated by a stunning limestone mass of land known as The Rock.

But it is not an island.

So over the weekend when Gibraltar inaugurated the International Island Games, a competition that gathers athletes from over 20 places, including Bermuda and Greenland, local officials had no clear explanation as to why it was being recognized as an island just for this purpose.

“There is no definitive answer,” said people like Owen Le Vallee, who is from the island of Guernsey and is a founding member of the International Island Games Association, which was set up in the 1980s.

Sports is one of the best ways to get recognition, said an employee at a local duty-free store, and though the territory is not an island, “most foreigners think that this is what Gibraltar is.”

Andy Varnom, the general secretary of the International Island Games Association, explained that Gibraltar is “almost surrounded by seawater” and was allowed to join the games more than three decades ago because membership was open to applicants with fewer than 125,000 residents.

Gibraltar covers 2.6 square miles and has about 30,000 inhabitants.

It has struggled to defend its identity, caught in a tug of war as Spain has long challenged British sovereignty. Steven Linares, the minister responsible for sports, linked the territory’s membership to its history of political isolation, particularly during the long Spanish dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco.

When the Island Games were created, he said, Gibraltar was invited to join in 1985 by the founding island, the Isle of Man, because it “considered that Gibraltar was virtually an island due to the border closed by Spain in 1969.”

Gibraltar came under British sovereignty under the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713 after a lengthy European war. But Spain has since continued to claim the territory, and Franco ordered the closing of the border between Spain and Gibraltar in 1969. The border reopened only in December 1982.

Since then, Britain and Spain have continued to bicker over Gibraltar, which has led to sporadic delays at the land border crossing amid accusations of smuggling, as well as disputes over territorial waters.

This past week, the sovereignty debate was revived after British forces seized a tanker off Gibraltar that was suspected of carrying Iranian oil to Syria, in violation of international sanctions. After the capture of the tanker, Spain’s acting foreign minister, Josep Borrell, said his government would investigate whether this military intervention violated Spanish sovereignty, “in as far as it took place in waters whose sovereignty we understand to belong to Spain.”

The Island Games Association has an eclectic membership. Many of the islands are under British sovereignty, but the list includes one Greek island, Rhodes, as well as one of the Spanish islands that form the Balearic archipelago, Minorca. Britain gained sovereignty over Minorca at the same time that it took over Gibraltar, but Spain then regained Minorca under another European treaty signed in 1802.

Thousands of people cross the border every day to work in Gibraltar, which has a buoyant economy that contrasts with the high unemployment rate in Spanish towns nearby. The land connection is an important feature of the relationship between Gibraltar and Spain.

On Saturday evening, politics were pushed aside as Gibraltar inaugurated the weeklong games in front of a packed stadium crowd — the second time the territory has hosted the games, after 1995. Spectators followed the parade of athletes from the 22 competing islands (led by those from Gibraltar), listened to military bands and watched a performance choreographed for the occasion, according to local news reports.

Combined with the fact that Gibraltar has taken part in every competition, this “is a contribution far greater than some of the other member islands,” Mr. Le Vallee, the founding member of the association, said in an email.

Before the opening of the games, residents seemed unconcerned about the territory’s being labeled an island and more worried about traffic congestion during the week’s events. They welcomed the fact that Gibraltar’s involvement in sports was raising its international profile, as well as encouraging more investment in sports infrastructure.

Some venues have been built specifically for the games, but Gibraltar also recently added a soccer stadium to meet the criteria required to host international competitions, after being allowed to become a member of UEFA, the governing body for European soccer.

That fulfilled a longstanding crusade by Gibraltar to be recognized as an independent soccer nation.


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