Finishers at the Palau Half Marathon (Palau Track and Field Association) © Copyright
Feature

As lockdowns ease in Oceania, competitions begin gradual return


Our Area in Focus series continues today with updates from three more countries in the Oceania region, Palau, Nauru and Fiji, and also checks in with the Area’s Competitions Manager Tom O’Shaughnessy.

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“If you talk about the area as a whole, it has coped really well compared with every other region.”

That’s the broad assessment by Tom O’Shaughnessy, the Competitions Manager for the Oceania Athletics Association (OAA).

“In a pandemic like this we are lucky in that all our federations are islands so there is that natural border so we could stop the spread. Some islands such as Guam and Tahiti were hit badly (by Covid-19) in terms of numbers but for many other islands there has been very low cases.”

Indeed, 13 of the 20 countries in the Area managed to remain free of Covid-19. But despite that, shutdowns in travel impacted the region’s calendar, forcing the cancellation or postponement of the Polynesian Championships in Tonga, the Micronesian Championships in the Northern Mariana Islands and the Melanesian Championships in Fiji.

“Events can take place in the islands but with travelling between islands non-existent at the moment, that is our biggest problem,” O’Shaughnessy adds. “We can’t do a lot with our events until travel opens up. We hope there will be a Pacific travel bubble open but that probably won’t be until later in the year. Only then will be know how the Pacific competition will look.”

Competition resumes in Nauru and Palau

But just as training facilities have reopened, competitions are returning. Palau staged its annual half marathon last weekend and Nauru held its national athletics championships, a traditional festival that spans several weeks, in May.

“Covid-19 has not impacted the island so the decision was taken to go ahead with the annual nationals track and field championships,” said Richie Halstead, the General Secretary of the Nauru Athletics Federation.

“We don’t have social distancing and things are going nearly as normal in Nauru.

The event is scheduled over the course of three weeks to build in several contingency days as torrential May rains can and sometimes do wash out the gravel track at the national stadium.

“The final day attracts everyone from six-year-olds to senior athletes. It is a day that somewhat stops the nation and draws thousands of people to the event.”

For a nation of just 12,000, you can imagine the magnitude and importance of such an event.

“We try not to trumpet it but we are pretty proud we are the only country to run a national track and field championship during these Covid-19 times.”

The scenario was similar in Palau, an archipelago of 500 islands that is home to a population of 18,000.

“Because we were not being impacted we decided to go ahead with our annual Pristine Palau Half Marathon in June,” said its federation Secretary General Peoria Koshiba, who competed for Palau in the 100m at the 2000 and 2008 Olympic Games.

“The course is hard with lots of hills and turns but we work with the Ministry of Justice on controlling the traffic,” Koshiba said. “It was a really successful event, and the first time we ran the event on a course around the city. We had a lot of people watch the action.”

But organisers were nonetheless careful, he points out, with athletes abiding by some social distancing regulations in place. The event attracted a record 75 women and 33 men who competed over the half-marathon, 10km and 5km distances.

Lal looking ahead to Bathurst

Nonetheless, Covid-free countries such as the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Vanuatu were indirectly affected since many things around them, including tourism, their chief industry, were closed.

 

Fijian cross country runner Avikash Lal at his family's fruit stand (Avikash Lal)Fijian cross country runner Avikash Lal at his family's fruit stand (Avikash Lal) © Copyright

 

That’s impacted some athletes, too, including Avikash Lal, twice a representative for Fiji at the World Cross Country Championships.

The 25-year-old athlete recently lost his job as a flight attendant and has returned to work on his family farm but the virus has not dampened his spirits.

Determined to compete at next year’s World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst, Lal he has sold vegetables from the farm to pay for a treadmill to help his training run more smoothly.

“I’ve had many hardships, I’ve lost my job and it is not easy to work all day on the farm, sell my products and find the time to train,” Lal said. “It is easier for me to run on the treadmill and set the speed at a certain pace. I’m happy to invest in the treadmill and I hope to make a name for myself in future.”

OAA assistance

O’Shaughnessy said the OAA has helped in whatever way it could to help its Member Federations get through the pandemic.

“We’ve done a lot of developmental work and we are finalising a couple of coaching and officiating courses,” he said. “Athletes from many federations have been able to get out there and train so we’ve been trying to promote this as much as we can.”

He added that The Cook Islands have been one of the more proactive federations, using the period to upskill their board members in different ways, “whether through event management, coaching or other online development activities.”

Looking ahead, the region’s relative success in combating the spread of the coronavirus puts Oceania in an advantageous position, O’Shaughnessy believes.

“We’ll be hoping to put our 2020-21 calendar together and we hope there’ll be a lot of uptake from people around the world wanting to come to Australia and New Zealand, especially with the World Cross Country Championships in Australia and trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.”

Steve Landells and Bob Ramsak for World Athletics