OP-ED: “It is time for us to focus on the Olympics and reconsider participating in the Pacific Games”
As the world prepares for the Games of the XXX Olympiad this week, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge and recognize the American Samoa National Olympic Committee (ASNOC) and all our athletes who will be representing American Samoa in the London 2012 Olympic Games. I know our delegation will proudly represent us at the largest international sports competition in the world, consisting of more than 200 countries with more than 10,000 athletes who will compete in more than 300 events.
Earlier this year, one of our own Samoan sons qualified to participate in the Olympics this summer in London. He is Carl Floor, Jr., or C.J., who won the Silver Medal in his weight division at the Africa and Oceania Wrestling qualifiers in Marrakech, Morocco. This indeed is a great accomplishment. I cannot imagine the sacrifices he and his family have made in order for him to even qualify to compete in the Olympic qualifiers. Although he will not be participating in this year’s Olympics, I commend his parents and family for supporting him in this demanding sport and representing his Samoan heritage on a global stage.
Having observed the development of our sports programs for the past several years, I honestly believe the time has come for American Samoa to make some serious adjustments on its current memberships with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Pacific Games (PG), or formerly known as the South Pacific Games.
In 1985, ASNOC was formed under the direction of the late Governor A.P. Lutali as part of the Olympic Movement in the Pacific. While I was Lt. Governor, Governor Lutali appointed me and a group of local sports leaders through ASNOC to submit an official proposal for membership to the IOC and to participate in the Olympic Games. These early pioneers of our sports programs included Charles Ho Ching, Vera Annesley, Te’o Gus Annesley, John Samia, Sr., Sameme Samia, Albert Lolotai, Fa’aesea Mailo, Ken Tupua, Ed Imo, Jim McGuire, Tony Solaita, and Lealao Melila Purcell.
In 1987, an official delegation from the IOC, led by the late IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, personally visited American Samoa from Geneva and brought with them the notice of official recognition of ASNOC’s charter as a member of the IOC. This enabled American Samoa to compete in both the Summer and later in the Winter Olympics beginning in 1994. This also made American Samoa a member of the Oceania National Olympic Committee that now consists of 17 member nations from countries and territories in the Pacific region.
During the 1988 Olympic Games in Korea, it was my privilege to lead the first ASNOC delegation to Seoul, whereby five of our very own athletes competed in the Olympics for the first time ever. I remember we came very close to winning a medal in boxing when Mikaele Masoe was one bout away from fighting in the quarterfinals. In the end, we did not win any medals in Seoul but we were building the pathway for the future.
As we are all aware, the pathway to participate in the Olympics for any athlete is difficult because of the stringent qualifications that are required in order to compete. While countries like China and the U.S. provide stipends and facilities for their athletes to train, athletes from the Pacific usually pay for their own expenses. The athletes in countries who have strong financial and government support are able to “focus” solely on their training. From the expensive required dietary meals to training while being the breadwinner, these add up and give other athletes the “competitive edge.” Athletes survive only through the few endorsements and whatever prize money that is available at privately sponsored competitions.
Over the years, our preparation and participation in the Pacific Games have always been one of struggling to fund the program. It is not only expensive for the individual athletes but also the countries and territories themselves. Many of the participating countries and territories have not been able to afford sending athletes to the Pacific Games because of the lack of resources. Some host nations have even accrued huge debts and have relied on other larger countries to support their bids to host the Pacific Games.
I do not want to take anything away from the friendship and spirit of competition that was envisioned by Dr. Sahu Khan in 1959 when he first proposed the idea that became the South Pacific Games. It was good then, but times have changed. Our Pacific nations and territories just do not have enough resources to adequately provide for better training and development of our athletes. I believe the time has come for Americans Samoa to reconsider its participation in the Pacific Games, and focus more now on making all the necessary preparations for our athletes to compete in regional and qualifying tournaments that will allow them to compete in the Olympics.
We need to establish a better process of screening Samoan athletes living in the U.S. who want to represent our territory because of their cultural ties to Samoa. We have had Olympic medalists of Samoan heritage including Greg Louganis (US) in diving, Eric Fonoimoana (US) in volleyball, David Tua (NZ) in boxing but these athletes did not represent American Samoa or Samoa. Although we are politically divided, we share the same cultural heritage. Moreover, both Samoas supported the Manu Samoa at the recent Rugby World Cup and the International Rugby Board Sevens World Series.
In the same solidarity, American Samoa and Samoa should work together in sharing resources where they can. Either through training expertise, sports facilities, or local competition, both Samoas can together advance the development of our sports programs.
It is unfortunate that we have few swimmers from our islands in international competition when we are surrounded by the ocean. We can change this trend by utilizing the state-of-the-art swimming facilities that Samoa built for the 2007 Pacific Games.
I would like to suggest that someday in the near future we will have Polynesian swimmers like the internationally renowned Duke Kahanamoku, a native Hawaiian, who won Olympic gold medals in the early 1900’s.
I know this will be a step forward in achieving our goal as we show the world that we are able to compete with the best of them. Now we have the 2016 Olympic Games that will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is time we start now.