Games tell a different story about the Pacific


Games tell a different story about the PacificNever heard of the South Pacific Games? With more events than the Commonwealth Games and some of the best underdog stories in sport, the Australian sporting public is missing an opportunity to see another side of the Pacific.

During the past two weeks, 22 Pacific countries and territories have turned their attention to Apia, Samoa, host of the 13th South Pacific Games. With enormous support from volunteers and foreign donors, particularly China, the Games overcame criticism in the lead up to demonstrate the value of bringing together countries separated by distance and language but united by many shared cultural values. Samoa's population swelled with new faces from around the region as athletes, officials and media enjoyed the convivial atmosphere.

In Apia, most people knew of colleagues, friends or family competing at the Games. Most athletes were amateurs in the truest sense; many made sacrifices to compete at the Games. It was the personal stories that came to the fore during the two weeks, providing an inside glimpse of conditions and peoples across the Pacific.

Two examples stood out to me, as an observer, in particular. In the Womens' 5000m event, 14-year-old Fijian runner Akesa Drotini crossed the line in first place. In a blow for sporting apparel manufacturers, she did so barefoot. Her story was fascinating. So often, athletes are the public face of a well resourced techno-scientific enterprise. Drotini reportedly lives in a remote Fijian community with her large family, walking a mile-and-a-half to school every day. Her family struggled to fund her fortnightly training sessions in Suva. Her win was celebrated by Samoan observers no less than a win by one of their own, such was the raw talent on display.

At the other end of the spectrum, a strongly-built middle-aged gentleman who has been training for around six months took silver for Samoa in a team event in the archery. The Honourable Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi lived close to his training venue and probably had little difficulty in funding the expensive equipment used in his sport. However, his day job as Prime Minister of Samoa made his achievement equally impressive.

Games tell a different story about the PacificPrime Minister Tuilaepa’s message to Samoans was simple — let no-one complain that they are too busy, or too old, to participate in sport. It is an important message in a region where non-communicable diseases are on the rise. This was also leadership by example in a country which has initiated government-mandated weekly fitness sessions for state employees, in an era when some leaders in the region are more likely to cosy-up to elite sportspeople to bask in reflected glory.

At a national level, the Games provided fresh good-news stories for countries and territories seemingly condemned to negative press or total obscurity by regional media. The diminutive state of Nauru, better known in Australia for rapidly declining phosphate and an Australian-built detention centre, proved that it can also export gold medallists, particularly in weightlifting. Political instability in French Polynesia was forgotten as Games' crowds got to know its energetic national anthem during medal presentations. Tokelau, the New Zealand territory with a population similar to a Victorian dairy town took home one medal per 300 of its people.

Admittedly, many of the athletes reside or train in non-Games countries. But this reflects Pacific reality. In a region where population growth has stalled as migration levels remain high, ethnically Pacific peoples residing outside their country of birth can make up a larger percentage of the birth-population of a country than those who have stayed. Identity and nationalism, so often part of international sporting meetings, therefore are twisted into an inclusive, rather than exclusive, concept.

Australia's national radio broadcaster, Radio Australia, covered the events admirably, yet it was also responsible for an example of regional news stereotyping which the Games could have done without. In a brief break during an otherwise extremely long day's shooting, a young reporter, interviewing the Samoan Prime Minister, could not help but inject a loaded question about Australia's involvement in RAMSI. The Prime Minister's answer to that question, and not his participation in the Games, became the lead story of the day's news bulletin. It was a reminder that even in the midst of the Games' success, much in the Pacific remains to be done to positively promote the diversity and spirit of the region.

Pictured (top): Prime Minister Tuileapa of Samoa collecting a silver medal.



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Existing comments

What an impressive and positive story the writer has created. As a Kiwi born Samoan, the sun rose quicker than ever before after reading this story.
Well done Luke. Manuia.
Jae'D Victor | 20 September 2007

A positive story for a great regional event. Having returned to Australia recently after working at the Games in Samoa, it obvious to me how little of an understanding that mainstream Australia has of its regional neighbours. Much of this has to do with the Australian media's lazy and stereotypical coverage of Pacific countries and the tendency to focus on negative aspects. Malo lava, Mr James.
Andrew Knott | 25 September 2007


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