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Rising up to the Games, citizens get gold medal for "community spirit"

The 2019 XVI Pacific Games in Samoa is yet to kick off and the narrative continues to change for the Pacific Islands’ version of the Olympics.

From Samoa’s announcement as Games host in September 2017, its two-year preparation (after Tonga pulled out citing cost fears), to the region’s first ever “green games”, and the eleventh-hour withdrawal of Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (CCCS) college students from participating in the opening and closing ceremonies, by the church hierarchy citing the need to respect Sunday. 

But for now let's put aside the politics behind Tonga throwing in the towel or the behind-the-scenes discussions on the participating of CCCS-run colleges at the Church Headquarters, which they kept in their closet until the eleventh hour before the opening ceremony.

Having covered the last edition of the Pacific Games in PNG for one of the country’s two daily newspapers, I have to hand it to Samoa for the extraordinary community spirit that its ordinary citizens are showing for a regional event, which the country is hosting again after 12 years.

Back in PNG in 2015, contracts worth thousands of PNG Kina were awarded for everything, from catering for athletes to the Pacific Games banners hung on power poles on the roadside. 

But here in Samoa, it is the communities in the respective villages that are taking the lead to beautify the country, in preparation for the Games. No subcontractors. No contracts worth millions. No ordering of merchandise from suppliers abroad. Just thousands of small flags belonging to the 24 participating nations and territories including host nation Samoa – which now line the road from Apia to Faleolo International Airport and are part of a plethora of decoration.

Shops in Apia told this newspaper recently that private companies, schools and colleges as well as villages have been their biggest customers of Samoan and Pacific Island flags in recent weeks. And these are not Government officials, but ordinary citizens who felt compelled by the occasion as host of the Pacific Games to pay out of their own pockets.

And what about the Games Torch which started its journey in Savai’i and gradually made its way to Apai. You don’t need to be a rockstar, a former Olympian or a Who’s Who in Sport to be honored with the privilege of carrying the Games Torch. Seeing ordinary Samoans have a piece of the Pacific Games history – through their participation in the Games Torch relay when it passed through their village – was truly a remarkable sight. 

Plus the schools and colleges that adopted each of the 24 participating nations and territories and taught their students traditional songs and dances from those nations and territories. Their performances after the Pacific Games Office-hosted flag raising ceremony brought tears to the eyes of the visiting athletes and officials. 

And those 2,000-plus students who participated in the Games opening ceremony rehearsal at the Apia Park Stadium on Wednesday night in the pouring rain, undeterred by the bad weather and determined to put on a good show for the visiting athletes and sports officials? And with their parents, family members and friends on the fringes of the stadium that night watching intently, we were witness to an awakening in community spirit amongst ordinary Samoans. 

Therefore, we have to hand it to Samoa for pulling this off in two years or 14 months to be exact. Tonga initially won the bid to host the next edition of the Games, after Papua New Guinea (PNG) played host in 2015. However, in July 2017 Tonga dropped a bombshell when it announced that it could not afford the cost of hosting the regional sporting event, and pulled out. Fast forward two years and the opening ceremony is less than three days away.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi fittingly described the two-week sporting event last month as Samoa’s “miracle games”, as he thanked the Government of China for donating 48 containers of sporting equipment, Chinese-made cars and fireworks that would be used during the Games. The donations come on top of new and refurbished sporting venues and facilities, which the Chinese built and handed over to Samoa last month.

Australia also stepped forward, handing over $400,000 worth of transport assets to the Samoa Government to boost security. And the U.S. Government gave medical equipment and will provide health personnel, who will support local staff at the Tupua Tamasese Meaole National Hospital for the duration of the Games. 

There is no doubt the 2019 XVI Pacific Games would not have been possible without the support of Samoa’s friends in China, Australia, the U.S. and various other partners. 

But it is the support of this Island nation’s citizens for the event and how they have risen to the occasion in a show of community spirit, which is truly remarkable and a model to the rest of the region. 

The theme of this Games is “One in Spirit”, ordinary Samoans, Pacific Games Office staff and volunteers, and the Samoa Government leaders lived and breathed it.

Have a wonderful Friday Samoa and God bless. 

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