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Linda Alvarez, key player in the development of the Gibraltar Island Games family

In 1995 I became part of the Island Games family, and some years later I was fully integrated when I reported on my first games outside Gibraltar for the Gibraltar Chronicle. I was not a sports reporter but I took on the challenge. I have always liked sport although some sports like golf were hard to grasp. As much as I enjoyed the sporting side of the games for me though, over the years, and I covered a handful of games – it was always about the friendships I made. The team took me in and I always returned with more friends I could count on. And at my side always, my dear friend, photographer Johnny Bugeja.

Linda Alvarez instantly became a friend, and still is now. In those early years I made friends with Pussy Whitwell, John Goncalves, Harry Murphy, Joe Santos and the late Becky Fortunato – and the man himself Freddy Chappory. But there were many others, so many it is hard to list them all, as I watched the young athletes grow in strength in their sport achieving personal bests and medals against all odds. There was always a great feeling of belonging and Linda, she led them all. Always super organised, always ready to give a hand and always at hand to solve any problem. She now leads the team to the next Island Games and sets off today making sure all is ready for our team.

Linda was not born in Gibraltar but today she has chosen to be a British Gibraltarian and has now lived amongst us for over 40 years.

“I am not going anywhere. Gibraltar is my home,” she says.

Linda is one of a group of people I often refer to on these pages as our adopted Gibraltarians. In the same way I always felt adopted by the Island Games community, and by Linda herself. It was inevitable she would one day sit at Alice’s Table. As the team heads for Guernsey for the 2023 Island Games she is still at the head of the Gibraltar Island Games family. The XIX Island Games were to have been held in Guernsey in 2021 however due to the COVID-19 pandemic the games were postponed. This occasion will be the third time the island of Guernsey hosts the games, the first being in 1987, and again in 2003. I first covered the games in 2001 in the Isle of Man. I had already met Linda in the Sunshine Games in 1995 when I headed the GBC team together with Patrick Mifsud, co-ordinating and producing the coverage of the games for both radio and television. But you could say, 2001 Isle of Man, was really the year I first got to know my friend Linda.

Spirited, bubbly, sociable and above all confident of the job she had to do on the ground as she took care of everyone – and I repeat, totally organised. I was there again in 2003, in the Shetlands in 2005, and in Rhodes in 2007.

Linda arrived in Gibraltar in 1985 and as a keen sports woman took up badminton and pool. She would eventually represent Gibraltar internationally in both. Today she is president of the Gibraltar Island Games Association and first took part in the games in 1987 as part of the Gibraltar team when she participated as a badminton player herself. Later she would attend the Games as team manager for badminton. These early years would seal a long-lasting relationship with the Games which continues to this day. She admits she found a home in the Island Games family. It all began in 1993 when she joined the organising committee for the 1995 Sunshine Games as its Secretary. Later, she would work closely with Freddy Chappory throughout his tenure as team manager for all the Games from 1997 onwards. Then in 2007 she was elected president of GIGA. Linda has also represented Gibraltar in the World and European Pool Championships, and as a representative of the Commonwealth Games Association of Gibraltar attended the Commonwealth Youth Games in Bahamas in 2017 and the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast in Australia in 2018 and in Birmingham 2022

As a teacher, she first taught locally at St Bernard’s First School. But she had always been in secondary education and her next teaching job was at Bayside Comprehensive. Taking on a different challenge for a number of years she would return to teaching and early education in St Mary’s First School. On retirement a few years back – her last teaching position was in St Mary’s – she then dedicated herself to sport. In fact, for most of her life she was dedicated to teaching and sport. When at university she already played badminton as well as netball and tennis. She tells me she has always had a competitive streak. She enjoys watching sport on television – Eurosport – winter sports, cycling and triathlon. She doesn’t like cooking. She is an avid reader, and enjoys working on her computer and working out her spreadsheets for the ever-growing island games team. She is at her best when she is productive. Out of the blue, I asked her. What about your Spanish? She smiles.

“I am with people who speak English all the time – I understand – but I don’t practise. Spanish is something I have not commanded – but I do have an O’ Level in Spanish.”

I don’t believe I have ever heard her speak Spanish in all the years I have known her.

Born in Greenwich in London in 1952, her mother was a school secretary and her father worked for the Greater London Council.

Linda recalls having to wear hand me down clothes as money then was scarce.

“Everyone was in the same boat. I was born into post war Britain and it was tough then. Money was tight and the rations were just fading away. What I remember is a pretty free lifestyle. Especially during the school holidays when my parents went to work and you just did your own thing during the day. Go round the parks, and I even remember one time getting on the tube to go to London and just walk around. Everything was so safe then. It was all so carefree.”

For a time, the family lived with her grandparents in Hackney. But Linda would return to Greenwich when she attended Goldsmiths College.

“I have always been a free spirit and independent. It was my mother who ensured I stayed on in school and made the most of it. I think she insisted because when war came, she had to leave school, and if not, she would have furthered her education. She actually went to college in later years and also became a teacher.”

Linda was always sporty. Her music was the sound of Tamla Motown.

“In those days you really only played sports at school. There were few facilities outside school. There were football clubs but not much else. All that came later. People did not have the money for leisure activities. They were not there – it was still very much a kind of survival environment. The post war syndrome continued well into the sixties and seventies… My house for example did not have an indoor toilet so we had to go outside. It was all still very basic.”

As a teenager she took on a Saturday and Thursday night job to earn some pocket money. Her first job at 14 was in a hairdresser – “you could work under age in those days”. She was already working twice a week at the Marble Arch Marks and Spencer store.

Linda was set to become a PE teacher but at 18 had other ideas. Although she had a place at St Mary’s College to become a teacher, Linda turned it down. She set off instead to work for Marks and Spencer in Baker Street at Head Office working with the manufacturers. Days were long and it meant taking the tube early each morning. Living at home her parents let her use the car.

“There were very few cars on the streets of London then but it meant I could go out with my friends and I remember going down Oxford Street and Fleet Street. At midnight we would go into the cafes and mingle. The area was so lively but now it is so quiet in that area.

“I have a very enquiring mind and I enjoy traveling. I did Geography at A Level. I felt there had to be something more to life – and decided to go back to full time education. I was working nine to five and it took an hour at both ends to get to work and then back home.”

She remained for three years at Marks, at which point, now 21, decided to return to full time learning and did a Degree in Geography with Geology at the end of which she did a year teaching training to qualify. It was now 1974.

A new world opened for her at university. She was a mature student – and took every opportunity available. The opportunities for young people in the East End were few and far between – and she knew this was her chance to make something of herself. On completing her studies, she moved to East Ham to teach at a large Comprehensive school where she taught for five years from 1975 – she would become head of year, and trained the badminton team.

Around 1980 she met her future husband, Felix Alvarez (a well-known personality in our community), whom she had been corresponding with. A year later she visited Gibraltar for the first time, and also visited Tangier. This was a completely new world for Linda. The couple married in 1982 and moved to Saudi Arabia where he was working at the time. Linda got a teaching job at the Riyadh International School. Then in 1986 the couple decided to return to the Rock. It was then Linda first taught at St Bernard’s First School, and first joined the Gibraltar Badminton Club. At that stage her marriage broke down but Linda liked Gibraltar. She took the decision to remain here and very soon integrated and joined the sports community – squash, badminton and pool. After teaching at Bayside Comprehensive she was offered a job with a Danish Stock Broking Company – she took on the challenge. But three years later teaching came knocking. She returned to early education in 1991 and St Mary’s First School.

“At first it was very hard to get used to the young minds. But the feedback you get from the younger children is just lovely. There is nothing like it – I always enjoyed teaching at primary level – six, seven and eight year olds. The school again became a part of my family. I enjoyed teaching these children. Now it is so wonderful to see people down the Main Street – whom I taught – with their own children. And I taught them too.”

During this time pool became a big thing for her and she represented Gibraltar abroad in world tournaments and became President of the Pool Association. She served for nearly 20 years on their committee. Also her memories of the 1995 Sunshine Games live on. For her being part of the Island Games was of great significance as it was also about belonging to this community.

“I remember watching the opening ceremony then making sure everything went smoothly with tears in my eyes because I felt so much a part of the local community. It is not always easy when you come from outside but at that moment for me it was the moment of acceptance and that I belonged here and I was accepted. It was a great feeling.

“In 1995 when I had to put the Gibraltar flag down in the middle of the stadium and the Falcons parachuted onto the stadium it was a tremendous moment for me personally, as well as for Gibraltar – the stadium was jam packed and it was buzzing. It would prove to be a fantastic start to a very successful games which is still recalled today s by the athletes from the islands.

“In 1995 people did not understand what the Island Games were about but as soon as we had it here everyone got involved – the entire community – there were times when athletes were taken on the back of the garbage vans to Lathbury Barracks. Everyone became a part of it. They embraced it in 1995 and again in 2019. You can forget what it’s about if you are not involved in sport - the camaraderie and the involvement and achievements. This is what became important to me. I had a purpose and embraced Gibraltar. In return the sport – the games – have given me so much more. The Island Games is a family.”

But she also points out that each game is special. Different.

“In Rhodes when football won Gold that was a major moment. Tennis player Lee Whitwell winning all her medals over the years. Our success in shooting. But I also remember silly moments like the major downpour in Shetlands during the opening ceremony.”

I can remember that one alright – when Johnny Bugeja’s camera stopped working in the middle of the ceremony.

Today Linda admits the future of the games is uncertain. With no title sponsorship, having grown bigger and bigger over the years, they have become more expensive. The Gibraltar games were the last pre-Covid – and it has taken a while for it to get back on track. The Guernsey Games this month will be the first since Covid. The future of the games she believes may be in going back to basics by using local accommodation and cutting costs. But it is also about maintaining a list of sports which make it affordable. Basketball, athletics and swimming are big events.

“Numbers wise it cannot get any bigger – participating is now a fortune. We are funded by the government but in terms of facilities look at what we have achieved locally for our athletes because of the island games.”

When the Island Games were held here it gave our sporting community new and better sporting facilities which has undoubtedly helped our young players develop into young sportsmen and women. It may be that at the beginning, she adds, Gibraltar was unsure of what it was getting into but gradually the Games helped to raise the level of some of our sports.

“I always feel very proud when I see the Gibraltar flag raised and of the achievements of our competitors. How against all odds they still achieve new standards. And then you hear the Gibraltar National Anthem - it is fantastic. We forget it was composed for the 1995 Games.

“There is nothing like going out together as team Gibraltar in an opening ceremony - wearing the same tracksuits, waving our Gibraltar flags. That togetherness is amazing, there is nothing like it, and it develops more and more. All sports support each other – it is a unifying element. It is about identity, and that we are Gibraltar.”

For Linda personally this equals that strong sense of identity “of being local” and of belonging to this community of Gibraltarians.

“I think my younger self would be surprised of what I have accomplished and of where I am today,” she emphasises.

“I am glad what I have now. Gibraltar has made me who I am.”

The 2023 Island Games will be held from 8 to 14 July. The weeklong event will see around 3,000 competitors from 24 islands take part in 14 sports.

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