the Burning West* can now compete on an equal footing

In the early days of the Fiji Secondary Schools’ Athletics Championships, the finals were held on the the grass tracks at either Buckhurst Park in Suva, or Natabua High School in Lautoka.

Term One of the school year is the allocated time for this huge event. First term is also the wettest time in Fiji (and the hurricane season), and many of the schools, all around the country, were holding their inter-house, and zone meetings competing on glorified “padi-fields”. Ankle-deep mud could be the order of the day. Those unlucky enough to get lane one almost always had a tougher job to qualify than for those in the drier lanes.

In 1979 Fiji hosted the 6th South Pacific Games at the newly refurbished national stadium on the old Buckhurst Park site at Laucala Bay. They now had an all-weather track, and this sealed the fate of the Western Division of Fiji. They could only host the Fiji Secondary Schools’ Finals when the national stadium was closed for upgrading. Why run on grass when a superior all-weather track was available in Suva!

Schools closer to Suva have been able to use the National Stadium track, and gain a significant advantage in early season performances. Those in the Western Division, and in other parts of Fiji, had to make do with sub-standard facilities.

In April, the Suva area has twice as much rainfall as does Nadi/Lautoka, and in May it has three times as much. Most of the rest of the country is experiencing high rainfall totals at the same time.  It is difficult for the athletes to record quality performances.

Now with a good all-weather track in the West there is an added incentive to think about the possibilities of Lautoka as a major Athletics centre. The athletes from the Burning West, now will be able to hold many of their meets (inter-house, school zones meets and regular inter-club competition) without being hampered by soggy, muddy tracks.

With the advent of the new Churchill Park all-weather track in Lautoka – ceremonially opened by the Prime Minister, the Honorable Voreqe Bainimarama, in March 2017 –  a whole new list of options now became closer to reality.

Prime Minster Bainimarama has been a strong supporter of our sport for many years. Below is a photo of him at the Fiji Secondary Schools’ Finals in 2014.

 

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PM Voreqe Bainimarama at the Fiji Schools Athletics Finals, April 2014

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The main straight – Churchill Park, Lautoka, with the horizontal jumps pits to the right.

Local government, in close association with the national government, has been at the forefront of the Churchill Park project. The ongoing development will benefit not just Athletics, but the other sports that traditionally have used Churchill Park since the 1950’s – Rugby Union and Soccer. The impetus for the new track came several years ago following the success in the Fiji Schools’ Finals by Lautoka’s Jasper Williams High School and Natabua High School. A jubilant Mayor of Lautoka made the promise to build the track – and he and his colleagues have delivered. Well done.

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Steeplechase water jump and javelin runway – Churchill Park.

Lautoka has a wonderful new facility, but at this stage it would be difficult to host a large Oceania Championship, until the accommodation situation improved. We must remember, though, in December 2006, OAA held its two Fiji Grand Prix Meets at Xavier College in Ba, and Lawaqa Park in Sigatoka. They were extremely successful. All the teams stayed at their hotels in Nadi and went daily by bus to the respective centres. This model could work very well for any major meet held at Churchill Park.

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Grandstands along the home straight, Churchill Park, Lautoka.

New hotels are being considered in the Lautoka area, however, and these could be a game-changer if the plans come to fruition.

Over the next few years the FSS Athletics’ bosses will make decisions about the direction of the Fiji Finals and Athletics Fiji must look at their own options with their ability now to hold important competitions in “Sugar Town”.

You need much more than a track to have a successful Athletics centre. Athletes, well-organised clubs, coaches, trained officials and equipment are essential for it to succeed. You also need to have an Athletics’ season that continues beyond the wet months and into the drier part of the year when most of the major regional competitions are held.

We look forward to exciting competition in the Sigatoka/Nadi/Lautoka/Ba/ Rakiraki  areas in the years ahead, and expect that the number of quality athletes will continue to increase. At a school level, they are currently doing very well. The challenge is now to see them continue into the senior divisions. When Fiji was so strong in the sport during the 1990’s, all of these towns in the Western Division had thriving Athletics centres. Time to do it again.

Exciting times ahead for our sport in Fiji, Melanesia and the wider Pacific.

We also look forward to profiling other new all-weather tracks in the Oceania Region as they come into service and are being used regularly.

* For those not familiar with Fiji, the Western Division of the main island, Viti Levu – around Nadi/Lautoka/Ba – is known as the Burning West because in the middle part of the year, when the rainfall is at its lowest, the daytime temperatures can be quite high and the sky brilliant blue and clear of clouds. It is, naturally, the main tourist season. The burning of sugar cane prior to harvest also added to the appropriate nature of the term.   In drought years the landscape can look a bit like the African savanna. Visiting Rugby teams hated playing at Churchill Park in mid-year because the ground was baked solid like cement. When you were tackled there, you never forgot it.

 

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