Samoa women’s sevens coach Auimatagi Sapani believes Olympic qualification could help unite the Pacific Island nation.
Both the Manusina and their male counterparts remain in contention for a place at Tokyo 2020, and are scheduled to compete in the Olympic repechage tournament in Monaco next month.
The two teams came close to qualifying for Rio 2016, as Manu Samoa lost the repechage final to Spain on the last play of the match, while the country’s women were beaten by Kazakhstan in their quarter-final.
Should either team be able to secure their place at a first Games, then Sapani hopes it can provide some cheer for a country currently in political deadlock.
“I want Samoans to come together in Samoa to celebrate if Manusina qualify for the Olympics,” he told World Rugby.
“We are confident we have the best team, who wants to qualify for the Olympics. Our players have international experience and they've played the best sevens teams in the world, like Australia, Fiji and New Zealand.
“We have players who are free on the field and they contribute to the watchability of the games.”
Keeping the Olympic dream alive
Sapani and his counterpart with Manu Samoa, Brian Lima, have seen their plans for Olympic qualification affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Manusina have not competed in an international tournament since November, 2019, when they finished fifth at the Oceania Women’s Sevens Championship.
Samoa’s men, meanwhile, were last in action at the HSBC Canada Sevens in March, 2020, where they lost their ninth-place semi-final to France — who will arguably be their biggest rivals for qualification in Monaco.
Both squads have been preparing for the repechage tournament with domestic training camps and tournaments, while Sapani picked a squad of 16 players in February.
COVID restrictions have meant that neither coach has been able to include overseas players in their plans so far, although Sapani hopes to have four New Zealand-based players with the squad in France.
Several male and female Samoan players, including men’s captain Tomasi Alosio, did take part in the Takiwhitu Tūturu tournament in Wellington last month. And, the teams hope to be able to hold a training camp in New Zealand on their way to France.
“Losing to Spain [in the Rio 2016 repechage final] was really heartbreaking so that's what kept most of us in, [to] just keep the Olympic dream alive to come back and really find any opportunity to be an Olympian,” Alosio said last month.
“Leading into June we've just got to put in the hard work… and just going over there knowing that we're going to give it 100 per cent.”
For Sapani, helping the Manusina to qualify for Tokyo would mark the end of a journey that began in 2015, when he took charge of the Samoan side for the Commonwealth Youth Games in Apia.
“Some of those girls are in today's team,” he said. “To witness them in matches as a coach is a win for me and to qualify for the Olympics is a bonus.”
Former Samoa women’s international Filoi Eneliko has been working with the Manusina in her role as Samoa Lakapi Womens Academy Manager, and she believes Olympic qualification could be transformative.
“It [would be] a huge achievement and impact for our girls,” she said.
“It's a huge impact for our local women here too, you know, they just want to reach the highest level of competition.
“If we qualify for Tokyo then we're getting the support from all the parents, all the support from schools, all the support from clubs and even our whole country is going to support the girls and get their daughters to come and play rugby.”
Eneliko added: “Some [parents] do not allow their daughters to come and play rugby, but if we do qualify for Tokyo that is the biggest impact in their lives and they will let their daughters play rugby.”
It’s now 101 days to the long-awaited Tokyo Olympics. The uncertainties and delay in staging of the 2020 Games, and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on training, qualification processes and mobility, means that for Pacific islands athletes, just making it to Japan will be a feat in itself.
Globally, 61% of the athlete quota places have already been allocated. 25% will be assigned during the remaining qualification period, which will run until 29 June; and the final 14% of athletes will be selected through rankings as per the respective qualification system for each sport.
Samoa boxers Marion Faustino Ah Tong and Tupuola Ato Plodzicki-Faoagali are the most recent Pacific island qualifiers for Japan, joining athletes in rugby, weightlifting, canoeing, and wrestling amongst other sports. Qualification processes continue in other disciplines, including athletics, swimming, judo, archery, and beach volleyball, where Vanuatu’s women stand a chance of qualifying.
Once they get to Japan, the athletes' experience will be very different from previous games, says Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC) President Dr Robin Mitchell.
For a start, there will be no international spectators although how this applies to many national dignitaries—heads of states and sports minister who traditionally attend the Olympics—is unclear. They booked years ago, and Dr Mitchell says the hefty deposits they paid at that time are non-refundable.
Olympics playbooks lay out requirements for travel and participation in Japan. They will continue to be refined as the Games near, but Dr Mitchell is confident Pacific island delegations will be compliant, as “it’s fairly close to what we are practicing in the Western Pacific,” and follows WHO advice, noting that the region is used to dealing with health outbreaks and natural disasters.
Athletes and officials in Japan will need to keep a diary of their movements, will have to use Games rather than public transport, and will follow an activation plan if they do test positive for COVID.
“Our training centre pre-games is Fukuoka and [it]has direct flights. But for Games time, they would prefer to fly to Tokyo because they have specified lanes to go through, straight into the bus, to the village,” Dr Mitchell says.
“Once you get to Tokyo, there's quite a lot of changes in the sense that the Games Village will probably at the most only be up to a third full…You cannot go to a village until four days before your event. And then two days after you have to leave the village and Tokyo as well.”
“For us the big unknown is, how are we going to get there? And how do we get back again?” Dr Mitchell says. ONOC is looking at charter flights and one option is to use Nadi and Guam as staging points, where Pacific athletes can meet and then travel together.
ONOC has provided training and funding as part of the Olympics build-up, but also as part of sports and sports management/training development more broadly. This training series has been delivered online, from basic courses in meeting processes and book-keeping to Masters levels programs.
“We're getting quite smart at doing webinars and stuff like that…and Oceania tends to pilot a lot of projects,” Dr Mitchell says.
Four years ago, the tiny Pacific island country of Fiji won its very first Olympic medal, a gold, when it stormed its way through rugby’s debut year at the XXVI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was a win for Oceania. Now, with less than one year to go to the Tokyo Olympics, it is a good time to reflect on Olympism and what it means for Oceania. Moreover, what could it mean for this fragile and vulnerable region on the planet? With growing issues of the global climate crisis, threats of more frequent and intensifying natural hazards, a long-standing health crisis, and now the COVID-19 pandemic which has been relatively slow and sporadic arriving, but looming nonetheless and wreaking havoc on small island economies, the value of sports through its epitome, Olympism, is a useful vehicle to examine the value and direction of human life and survival on Earth, particularly that of Pacific islanders.
Pacific rugby and legacy of Fiji’s Olympic win bring a measure of equity
There is a lot that a piece of earth and a simple ball can do – none probably know this better than fans of rugby sevens, particularly those who follow it religiously in the Oceania region, the Pacific islands. Sevens rugby, the abbreviated code extracted from the original fifteens, is a smoother, crisper, flamboyant, fast-paced version that thrills as its players display skill, athleticism and the universally recognised, ancient Olympics linked virtues of grace and beauty. The inclusion of sevens rugby in the Olympic portfolio of sport is attributed to several key events and people in both the worlds of rugby and the Olympics. It is easy to lose sight of this as sports management and administration, while known to the sporting world, is seldom of interest to the general public. However, it is critical to document and remember this as collective memory, because of the difference it has made to Olympic participation. After all, the small island states of the Oceania region did not touch an Olympic gold medal until sevens rugby was included in the Games. The advocacy and lobby journey to that end is something the Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC) secretariat will hopefully document for its own promising practice, knowledge sharing and capacity building for the future. It will be an important undertaking because it is an exercise in regionalism which the Blue Pacific needs.
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When it comes the sport of weightlifting in the Pacific, outside of the star competitors, the other name that immediately comes to mind is coach Paul Coffa. In fact, his name resounds across the Pacific region, suggesting strength, power and success with regards to this sport.
His illustrious 26 year coaching career at the Oceania Weightlifting Institute includes inspirational stories, where young Pacific islanders dare to dream big and achieve greatness in the world of weightlifting. By establishing institutions and training facilities in the region, weightlifters from across the Pacific islands were able to come together and test themselves under Coffa’s tutelage. The list of successes is long, and includes Olympics 2008 silver medallist, Samoa’s Ele Opeloge, and former Nauru President and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Marcus Stephens.
Coffa has now moved to Australia, where he plans to continue his work. He closed the Institute in Nauru as the COVID19 pandemic meant scholarship lifters returned home, the Olympics were postponed to 2021 and borders closed. The Institute had previously been based in Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia.
To read more about Coffa's plans subscribe to Islands Business.