By Rod Gilmour
KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) - With a population of around 49,500, the windswept Faroe Islands has heralded distance swimmer Pal Joensen as their top sporting talent since he won triple gold at the European Junior Championships in 2008.
His success caught Belgrade organisers off guard as they desperately searched for a Faroese flag for the first medal ceremony to celebrate a surprise victory for the 18-island archipelago in the North Atlantic.
Seven years on, the 24-year-old is now a double European senior medallist behind Italy's Gregorio Paltrinieri and is looking to secure a first world championships medal when he races over 800 metres and 1500m in Kazan this week.
However, Joensen's annual status as the archipelago's leading sportsperson has come under threat in recent months from its national soccer team. Before November, the Faroe Islands' greatest success had been achieved in their first competitive international in 1990, a 1-0 win over Austria, but home and away victories over Greece have seen the side rise to 74th in FIFA's world rankings.
"The people who now know the Faroe Islands is tenfold," Joensen told Reuters.
"Winning at football is a very effective way of knowing where we are," he added of the team's rise into the top 100 for the first time.
"I hope it will inspire other Faroese to not see ourselves as just a small island community. To overcome the odds needs pride and strong will power."
From training in a 25m pool on his home island of Suduroy, Joensen has also beaten the odds to become a leading distance swimmer, forced to compete for Denmark at the Olympics as the Faroes have yet to be recognised as an IOC member nation.
However, Suduroy officials have recognised his talents, recently building the country's first 50m pool in a bid to nurture future talent.
"It is a symbol to tell people of what can be achieved," the Copenhagen-based Joensen added. "People tell me that I am an ambassador, that I have achieved what nobody else has done on the island. The pool is a symbol of that too."
Kaj Leo Johannesen, the Faroe Islands' prime minister who was also reserve goalkeeper against Austria 25 years ago, said that Joensen's work ethic had created an island-wide phrase, "The Pal Effect".
"He is a character who brings people together," Johannesen said. "In all different aspects of society, be it trade, politics or business, they are looking to Pal."
(Editing by John O'Brien)