August 8, 2008

Athletes from Sinking Islands Scramble For Gold

Rising sea levels may one day sink some South Pacific islands, and Olympic athletes are warned it's now or never to go for the gold.

Tuvalu is a ring of nine Polynesian islands covering 560 sq km of ocean, with only 25.9 sq kms of land. It's sending three athletes to Beijing. It will be the nation's first Olympic competition after being accepted into the International Olympic Committee in 2007.

Tuvalu's track and field athletes Asenate Manoa and Okilini Tinilau and weightlifter Logona Esau trained in the larger South Pacific nation of Fiji and the French territory of New Caledonia.

Manoa said she stayed at a hotel in the Fijian capital Suva then ran to the track each day as a warm-up. She practiced the first block starts of her career before she fell asleep at her desk.

"She's never experienced this type of training before and she is just exhausted but she will go well in Beijing," said Oceania National Olympic Committee secretary general Robin Mitchell.

Climate change scientists say Tuvalu could disappear within 50 years due to high winds, king tides and rising sea levels. The nation's nine low-lying reef islands and coral atolls are shrinking.

"It must be a dreadful situation to be in, where the history of your forefathers stands to be lost," said Rob Gell, president of Greening Australia.

Already, thousands of Tuvaluans have left their island home, deciding to restart their lives in New Zealand.

Tuvalu is not the only South Pacific island nation facing the same fate during the Olympics.

Kiribati, who will send three athletes to its second Olympics, is also slowly sinking. Every year, storm surges flood Kiribati islands, eroding the coastline and contaminating fresh water supplies with sea water.

In Beijing, a total of 70 athletes from 15 South Pacific island nations will compete.

The once wealthy island nation of Nauru, will send only one athlete, weightlifter Itte Detenamo.

Papua New Guinea will have the largest South Pacific team of seven athletes, followed by Fiji and Samoa with six.

Also making its first Olympic appearance are the Marshall Islands. They will send five athletes. While Tonga, the last Polynesian monarchy, will see its team, cheered on by a crown prince and princess.

South Pacific nations have sent a total of 10 weightlifters to Beijing, many training in New Caledonia under Oceania weightlifting coach Paul Coffa.

"I am pleased that all lifters have reached this final stage injury free. Each and everyone of them is looking forward to the competition," wrote Coffa.

Islands Business news magazine said weightlifting is "the sleeping giant" sport, which could give the people of the South Pacific an Olympic gold medal.