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Oceania Area President Sapong: post-Covid-19, ‘I think we’re going to come out stronger’

Congratulations to newly elected OAA President Robin Sapong Eugenio of the Northen Mariana Islands

World Athletics over the next six weeks, we’ll be featuring our Area in Focus series, a look at how our six Area associations are building momentum as lockdown restrictions around the world are beginning to ease. This week we’ll focus on Oceania and begin with an interview with Oceania Athletics Association president Robin Sapong Eugenio.

With thanks to World Athletics and

Written by Bob Ramsak for World Athletics

As one of the newest members of the World Athletics Council, Robin Sapong Eugenio was eagerly looking forward to his first Council meeting, set for 12 March in Monaco. But just four hours prior to his scheduled departure, he suddenly felt the walls closing in around the northwestern Pacific archipelago that is his home.

Driving those imaginary barriers was the spreading coronavirus pandemic that would, in less than 48 hours, all but shut the Northern Mariana Islands from the rest of the world. One flight option after another faced increasingly restrictive transit rules, airports on the verge of shutting down and eventually, countries sealing their borders. In the end, he would join the meeting remotely, a kind of engagement that’s become commonplace since. Indeed, an almost ‘normal’ way to operate any organisation these days, including the Oceania Athletics Association he’s presided over since the end of last year.

“In the beginning it was difficult,” he said, “because the staff were working at home. But eventually it became a regular thing.”

Running an organisation like his area association, a group of 20 national federations, many of them remote islands that span five time zones and the international date line, poses its own set of challenges under any circumstances.

“In our area it’s interesting because we’re all separated by ocean,” he said. “We normally communicate via email. Different areas here have different networks. It’s really difficult to communicate sometimes.”

Sapong said World Athletics helped set the tone when it began organising weekly meetings of Area Federation Presidents soon after the lockdowns began.

Following up on those weekly Area Federation meetings, Sapong and his team then briefed their own Area Council, partners and other stakeholders. Then, the Area Council followed up by updating the national federations.

“Then we reached out to our member federations and created a platform where they provided input. Coaches, athletes and other partners were invited.”

“I think we’re going to come out of this stronger,” he continued. “We can now network better on a daily or weekly basis.”

Dedication to athletics

In all likelihood, that he would be forced to administer a sport through a global pandemic wasn’t what Sapong was expecting when he decided to devote a large portion of his life to the sport he loved.

As an athlete, he said, “I used to complain about athletes not getting what they needed – as far as equipment and training time. So one of my mentors asked me, ‘So what are you going to do about it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. Let’s ask the person taking care of it.’ And he said, ‘No – the only way you can improve the sport is if you bring yourself into it.’”

He answered the call. In 2002 he resigned from his job as a bank manager to become a volunteer assistant coach.

“People asked, ‘Are you crazy?’ I said that I just needed a shift of vision.” He’s been the Secretary General of the Northern Marianas Federation since and in 2007 was elected to the Oceania Area Council. And he continues to coach.

Addressing athletes’ concerns

Athletes from his region shared similar concerns and faced similar challenges to those around the world when the lockdowns began – restricted training areas and closed facilities. The biggest struggle, he said, was that coaches weren’t there to guide them.

“Not everyone had access to platforms where they could be coached by phone or skype or zoom. It was also difficult knowing that they were going to miss the season. For some this was to be their last.”

Last weekend, he said, “We were supposed to kick off our regional championship in Micronesia. And in the morning I woke up and just thought, wow. It was so hard. I just looked at the flags that we were going to have represented. It was just a shock. 

“But we tried to remain positive, reminding them that it was just a setback, that other opportunities would come.”

The pandemic lockdown also coincided with storm season, which compounded the difficulties in some areas.

“As (the lockdown) was happening, some of the islands were also facing floods, droughts and at the same time, typhoons and cyclones. Those were also some of the challenges.”

Sapong also faced another challenge. He balances his athletics duties with a job as a safety officer for a hotel chain whose lockdown protocols required him to stay at his hotel since 28 February.