Maldives are perhaps looking forward to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games a little more than most.

The Indian Ocean nation of more than 1,000 islands will be returning to the event after missing Gold Coast 2018 due to a political row which ultimately left athletes among the losers.

In 2016, Maldives withdrew from the Commonwealth of Nations after alleging "unfair and unjust" treatment.

The Commonwealth had threatened the country with suspension if it failed to address democracy concerns, including freedom of speech, the detention of opponents and judicial independence.

It was the third time Maldives had been warned about partial or full suspension since Mohamed Nasheed, the country's first democratically elected President, was forced out. 

He was replaced by Abdulla Yameen in a 2013 election which critics said was corrupt.

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated Yameen in a 2018 vote, however, and immediately applied to re-join the Commonwealth.

The country was admitted again in February 2020 and had its Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) membership restored in August of the same year.

Under CGF rules, only countries which are members of the Commonwealth can compete at the Games, with Maldives now due to return for the first time since Glasgow 2014.

"In terms of athletes it was a very sad situation," said Hussain Jawaz, the Maldives Chef de Mission for Birmingham 2022, to insidethegames.

"Every day they train to perform at the highest level, and when political situations come up it's very difficult for them as they are not involved in the politics.

"But they have to adhere to the difficulties they face." 

Maldives are returning to the Commonwealth Games for the first time since Glasgow 2014 ©Getty Images
Maldives are returning to the Commonwealth Games for the first time since Glasgow 2014 ©Getty Images

Maldives are hoping to select 17 athletes for Birmingham 2022, in sports including athletics, swimming, beach volleyball and 3x3 basketball.

There are big hopes for table tennis player Fathimath Dheema Ali, who at 13-years-old could be one of the youngest athletes in Birmingham in any sport.

The youngster started playing when she was six after being rejected by a badminton coach because of her height.

Her hero is China's triple Olympic gold medallist Ding Ning, and when she played aged 10 at the 2018 World Team Championships in Sweden, her 35-year-old team-mate Muenna Mohamed was her senior by a quarter-of-a-century.

Dheema is ranked inside the top 10 in the world in the under-15s category and won three gold medals at the 2019 Indian Ocean Island Games in Mauritius. 

Then aged 11, she triumphed in the women's singles, women's doubles and the team event.

"When an athlete comes up like this the whole country is excited about it," said Jawaz.

"She is the number one in Maldives and she is in the world ranking as well.

"She is a prospect we are looking at as an athlete who is achieving at a young age." 

With the picture-postcard Maldives spreading out over a huge area of 90,000 square kilometres, with islands on both sides of the equator, travel for athletes can be difficult.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also caused problems, with rules put in place to stop people from hopping from island to island.

"A lot of athletes have to travel by boat as air transport is very expensive," Jawaz, the general secretary of the Football Association of Maldives, said. 

"The travelling is very difficult for us. 

"If the weather is bad it's not advisable to use boats and travel by sea.

"Coronavirus also had a very big impact because geographically the Maldives is small islands. 

"There were restrictions on going from one island to the other, and athletes found it very difficult to train because most of the facilities were closed.

"We are hoping things will calm down." 

Table tennis youngster Dheema is a big prospect for Maldives ©Getty Images
Table tennis youngster Dheema is a big prospect for Maldives ©Getty Images

Being an island nation also means there is little space to construct the necessary sporting facilities, with aerial photographs of capital city Malé showing there is nowhere left to build.

There are two synthetic athletics tracks in the country, but as these are available to the general public it means top athletes such as Olympic 100 metres sprinter Hassan Saaid need to book their training times.

Some athletes have the opportunity to train overseas but this is far from ideal.

"The land area is small and it's a huge challenge to do urban planning because the land is so scarce, and it's expensive," said Jawaz.

"We have a swimming pool now but before athletes had to swim in the sea.

"They had a platform there, but that meant a very different situation compared to competitive swimming in the pools. 

"In terms of infrastructure we still need a lot of changes."

Climate change is a subject never far away from the agenda in the Maldives, a popular destination for honeymooners. 

At the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, delegates were warned that rising sea levels could leave a large number of islands underwater.

"We always talk about climate change and the weather that affects the ecosystem of Maldives," said Jawaz, who has enjoyed long involvement with his country's National Olympic Committee.

"We are one metre above sea level and we have a fear that some of the islands might get submerged. 

"The weather is changing now, we do not know what is the rainy season and what is the sunny season, because it keeps changing. 

"When athletes are training they cannot predict the weather.

"Changes are happening very fast. We used to know that June or July would be the rainy season, but right now we don't know." 

The Commonwealth Games could provide a more positive note, with Jawaz hopeful that Maldives could pinch the first medal in the country's history.

There was excitement when the Queen's Baton Relay visited the country, with the resulting images superbly showing off the archipelago's outstanding natural beauty. 

"It was a big celebration," said Jawas. "Because during the pandemic, the restrictions for travelling were there. 

"The people felt like we are part of the Commonwealth and it felt really good when we brought the baton to some of the islands. 

"They enjoyed very much the beauty of the Games by participating in small events. 

"Some of the islands have a population of 2,000.

"Everyone joined together and it was a big festival. We used our natural resources, we brought it to the sea and we showcased it on the beaches. 

"It was quite the spectacle."