by Bob Snow
Below is a brief profile, with photos, of one of the smaller countries in the world and one of the most remote in the Oceania Region. It highlights the problems to be found in such small nations, and outlines the great advances the people have made to compete in Athletics meets against countries that have far more advanced facilities – and much larger populations.
With only two flights a week from Nadi in Fiji to Tarawa in Kiribati, this is one of the Pacific Ocean’s more remote island nations. (There is also a flight from Brisbane to Kiribati via Honiara in the Solomon Islands and Nauru). All of the problems of Pacific Islands travel are encapsulated by this small Micronesian republic.
And the problems are many – the tyranny of distance, disruptive weather events, cost of flights and frequent disruption to schedules. In addition there is the difficulty of athletes from Kiribati who need visas to transit through countries on their way to major competitions. If the visa application stipulates that they must present themselves for an interview, then this adds to the burden that the Pacific Islands athletes have over and above those who live in developed Western countries. Nothing can be done in a hurry. No last minute addition of an athlete to a championship competition, or addition of an official to a training course.
It is possible to reach the wider world via a slow boat to Christmas Island (one week away), which is to the south of Hawaii. Not recommended for those in a hurry.
The flight took just under three hours to cover the 2178km from Nadi to Bairiki International Airport. We landed on the atoll, which is just a little over 1 degree north of the Equator. Kiribati has only approximately 112,000 people, and they are spread over three different time zones. Eastern Kiribati (the Line Islands) are Greenwich Mean Time + 14 hours. The new day truly does start in Kiribati.
The total land area of the main 33 islands/atolls is 811 square km, but they are spread over 3900km from east to west. The total area of land and sea in Kiribati is approximately 5,000,000 square km.
Of the smallest 24 countries in the world, 11 belong to Oceania Athletics. We differ in so many ways from the other continental groupings.
Tarawa was the scene of a significant World War II battle. The Japanese had captured the island in 1941, and on 20-23 November, 1943, US forces landed on the island and after much loss of life they won control of Tarawa.
Most of the action took place on the small island of Betio in the south of the atoll. Today a tollway (20 cents per trip) joins Betio to the rest of the atoll. The different small islands that surround the huge lagoon, are linked by bridges and causeways. In many parts of Tarawa the land area is less than 20 metres from sea to sea.
The average height above sea level of Tarawa is said to be 2 metres. Lucky that they are out of the “hurricane zone”. Being very close to the equator does have its advantages. There is one part of the island that is just a little over 3m above sea level. The local joke is that it is the tsunami safety assembly point!
After World War II, two large groups of people moved from the Gilbert & Ellice Islands to Fiji to occupy islands, which they had purchased. The people of Banaba (now in Kiribati) moved to Rabi Island, and the people from Vaitupu Atoll (now in Tuvalu) moved to Kioa Island in the area known as Buca Bay, just off Vanua Levu. Tuvalu’s main female athlete, Asenate Manoa, was born on Kioa Island.
The heritage and history of many of the small Pacific Island nations are entwined with linguistic, cultural, spiritual, and now, sporting contacts.
It has been difficult to establish nationwide sports in Kiribati, but Athletics has always been one of the disciplines that thrived during the colonial era when Kiribati and Tuvalu were known as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. In the first South Pacific Games in 1963 (Suva) Tara Mango got the silver medal in the 10000m event behind former OAA President, Viliame Saulekaleka (FIJ). They first participated as an independent nation in the SPG in Suva in 1979.
Kiribati gained its independence from Britain in 1979, and twenty years later they joined the IAAF. In 1998 they participated in the Oceania Athletics Championships in Nuku’alofa, the Kingdom of Tonga, as associate members, with Eneree Tataio getting a NR (11.78 seconds) in his heat of the U20 Men’s 100m. They have been regular attendees at Oceania Championships ever since.
The OAA delegation, comprising Yvonne Mullins and Sarah Runzheimer, had important meetings with the Kiribati Vice-President (Hon Kourabi Nenem), who is also the Minister for Sports, the Health Department specialist in charge of NCD’s (Anja) and KAA President Peter Birati and the office holders of Kiribati Athletics.
In addition they ran two separate courses TOECS 1 for the officials and CECS 1 for the coaches.
Every Friday local primary schools have a meet at the track. Great atmosphere, with all of the spectators cheering on their classmates in the shuttle relays. They have, however, to contend with a pretty rough track. This is the best track for thousands of kilometres, and it makes it hard for the country’s top athletes to prepare for events such as the Oceania Championships, Pacific Games, Micronesian Games, Commonwealth Games and Olympics. It is hoped that a much-upgraded facility will be possible in the near future. The current government is very supportive of sport, and the Athletics’ fraternity is optimistic.
A good grass track is out of the question. (There is not even enough good rain to provide grass for cows. Cattle are now a distant memory). Water is a huge problem locally, and there is talk that eventually a desalination plant will be needed. In the early colonial era, Nauru and Banaba (Ocean Island) got their fresh water from Melbourne in huge tankers. The phosphate went from those guano rich islands to Melbourne and the water provided the cargo for the return voyage. Travel was extremely difficult (and time consuming) in the days before aircraft. It is still a huge problem for people who do not live in the South Tarawa section of the country.
On the Friday night the OAA delegration was entertained at the home of the Kiribati Vice-President, the Honorable Kourabi Nenem. In his seaside home (well everywhere in Kiribati is near to the sea) we were wined-and-dined, and had more than our share of kava. The V-P has a strong connection to Fiji from his own education, and the continuing education of his children. During the evening Kourabi entertained us with a wonderful rendition of that classic Fiji hit, Era Bini Tu as in the background we could hear the breaking of the waves as they hit the shore.
This is the Pacific – a region unlike any other on Earth.
To show us the distinctive nature of South Tarawa, Kiribati Athletics arranged a tour of the small islands, which are connected by bridges and causeways. We were shown the historical, cultural, commercial and political sites from Betio at one end of the island chain to Bonriki at the other end of the series of connected motus (small coral islands).
One constant problem they have in Kiribati is the erosion of the islands as the sea activity gradually eats away at their homeland. Many parts of Tarawa are much smaller than they were a generation ago. Precautions against erosion can be only marginally effective – for a short time.
In the 1950’s in high school, I studied a book about the Gilbert & Ellice Islands -“A Pattern of Islands” by Arthur Grimble. To prepare myself for my first trip to Kiribati I reread this book that is so evocative of a bygone age, but one which still resonates today. Much has changed in this small nation over the years, but at heart it is still the same people, with the same culture, and same joyous nature that existed during Grimble’s time here from 1913 to 1919.
Huge changes have been seen in the past five years, as investment, mainly from China, has resulted in many large businesses opening along the long-and-winding road from Bonriki to Betio.
The last word on the long-term future of the Republic of Kiribati is closely tied-up with the following photo, which shows large imported rocks that are a buffer to the pounding sea, which is gradually eroding away the land. We hope that the measures taken by local and international authorities are sufficient to prolong the habitation of this equatorial paradise that is the home to over 100,000 people.