Development, Arts, culture & society | The Pacific

25 May 2017

With the Solomon Islands set to host the 2023 Pacific Games, Rochelle Stewart-Withers takes a look at how the value of sport in the Pacific goes beyond just medal tallies.

The Solomon Islands can lay claim to a number of sporting firsts. It is Solomon Islander, Alick Wickham, who is credited with first demonstrating the ground-breaking crawl stroke, considered to be an early form of freestyle swimming. Further improved by the Sydney-based Richmond Cavill, this swimming style spread to England, New Zealand and America. Cavill went on to use this stroke at an International Championships in England, 1902, to set a new world record.

Come 2023, the Solomon Islands will be gearing up for another first as they look to kick start the 17th Pacific Games, with the hope too that records will be broken and personal bests for athletes recorded. Following on from Tonga in 2019, which will also be a first-time host to the games, the Solomon Islands will be the eighth Pacific Island nation to stage the event.

The Pacific Games – formerly the South Pacific Games – is a multi-sport event, much like the Olympic Games (albeit on a much smaller scale), with participation exclusively from countries around the South Pacific Ocean. The games began in 1963 in Fiji, and are held every four years. In between times the region also runs the Pacific Mini Games – a scaled-down version of the main Pacific Games. Being smaller in size, this has given those Pacific nations with less capacity an opportunity to organise and run a sporting competition.

Whether it is the Pacific Games or the mini version, the cost of providing the necessary facilities and infrastructure can cause unease and conflict. In some instances governments are accused of looking to divert funds from other important developments, as was argued in the case of PNG, or they seek to take loans or receive aid worth millions from overseas governments to finance sporting infrastructure, for example, the building of a stadium.

For example, it has been recently reported that China is to give Tonga US$17.6 million dollars to help build facilities to be used for the Pacific Games in 2019 and the Solomon Island is reported to have approached Taiwan for assistance. Even if loans are interest free or packaged as aid, these can often come with stipulations such the reconfiguration of trade relationships or conditions. This of course raises concerns and spurs much political debate.

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Whether or not hosting sporting events leaves a positive legacy is as highly contested as the events themselves. Academics and politicians alike have argued the costs and benefits of playing host to such events. These types of events bring rise to highly-charged debates about who is awarded contracts, what the employment opportunities might be, who is included or excluded, infrastructure quality and timelines, environmental impacts, the higher than predicted costs and the implications for taxpayers, to name a few. Even the legacy of increased tourism in the post-event years is questioned.

For least developed countries, pouring millions of dollars into systems, processes and infrastructure is perceived by some to be digressing from what is really important. In the context of poverty and deprivation, some have argued that sport is something of a luxury when set against the demand for food security, adequate health care and education, and the need to address civil conflict or corruption.

The Pacific Games, however, are of extreme importance to the region. The games provide an opportunity for showcasing the huge array of sporting talent, and give athletes, coaches, and managers an occasion to put their skills and knowledge to the test. All too frequently, athletes from developing countries or small islands states struggle to shine in comparison to bigger, usually more developed, nations. The competitions in which Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are able to participate are few and far between. Thus they have fewer opportunities to partake in sports competition in a formal sense, and when they do the playing field is hardly even. Events such as the Pacific Games provide opportunities and allow for experience to be gained.

While Australia and New Zealand were allowed in 2015 to participate in the games for the first time ever, their participation was regulated in that they were only able to partake in specific sports, such as touch football and weightlifting. These are sports where Pacific countries also offer strong competition, and where the playing field is considered to be more equal.

While it is well understood that hosting sporting mega-events can be a costly social, economic, and environmental exercise, middle range and smaller scale events can have more to offer in terms of leaving a positive legacy. The Pacific Games is also an opportunity for cultural celebration, a wonderful forum for display of the arts – dance, haka, and song.

Finally, over the last decade there is growing support for the idea that sport can be utilised as a vehicle for development. The idea is that well designed, sport-based initiatives incorporating the best values of sport can be powerful, practical, and cost-effective means of achieving development goals and peace objectives. Hence for several years now, sport-for-development programs have been implemented around the world looking to make a positive difference for disadvantaged or underprivileged communities. Special sporting events such as the Pacific Games not only allow social, cultural, and sporting achievements to be celebrated, but also create an entry point for development actors. There is a growing body of evidence which highlights sport events as an important conduit for delivering development activities.

Without a doubt, the Solomon Islands will face challenges hosting the 2023 Pacific Games, just as larger nations are challenged by the hosting of the Rugby World Cup or the Olympics. However, if we look beyond the price-tag and take a more holistic view of the value of sport, it is clear that the Solomon Islands will win more than just medals in 2023.

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