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“The Real Pacific Games Champions: and the challenges” (edited article in Fiji Times, 25 July, 2015)


The Real Pacific Games Champs: and the challenges (edited article in The Fiji Times, 25 July 2015)
Professor Wadan Narsey

For the last two weeks the public have been seeing medals tally tables as in Table 1, with Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Tahiti and Fiji in that order. But such crude rankings can be quite misleading

The number of medals won typically depends on total population, how rich the country and its sports facilities are, the range of sports played and medals per sport, the “sporting culture”, individual brilliance and the “host country” effect.

No two countries in the Pacific are similar by these criteria.

PNG with 7 million ought to better than Fiji (880 thousand) and miles better than Niue with a mere 1000 people.

New Caledonia and Tahiti, both French territories with better sports facilities, ought to do better than the Solomon Is and Vanuatu or Kiribati.

But for the 2015 PG, full credit has to be given to PNG, as Vidya Lakhan Chairman of the PG Committee did, for mounting an extremely successful PG, with a spectacular opening, which showcased the cultures of different provinces. Contrary to all the pre-Games fears no violence or crime marred the event.

There is just a small matter of “rankings.”

Ranking By Total Medals

The media usually ranks countries by “Gold Medals Won”, but a fairer way is by “Total Medals Won” which gives silver and bronze medal winners fair recognition.

Better than that is what most sports analysts use – a ‘Total Points’ system which gives higher values to gold and silver, for example, 4 to each gold, 2 to silver and 1 to bronze.

But “Total Points” gives almost the same rankings as “Total Medals Won” which  is easier for the public to understand.

Table 1 therefore gives the ranking by ‘Total Medals Won’ in the 2015 PG excluding Australia and NZ  (see my comments below on this “bad experiment” of including them for the 2015 PG).

Table 1

The “top” country is PNG (217 medals), followed by a large drop to New Caledonia (165 medals), and another large drop to Fiji (114) and Tahiti (113).

By “Gold Medals Won” or by “Total Points” (see at the end of the article, Tahiti will be above Fiji).

But to be really fair, one should allow for the different populations (and by national wealth indicators such as GDP and GDP per capita- but that is another story).

Ranking by Medals per population

By the criterion of ‘Total Medals per Thousand Population’, the real champion countries are the smallest countries as given by Table 2 (which gives the most recent populations in thousands):

1 Norfolk Island

2.Cook Islands

3. Nauru and

4. Niue.

Table 2

PNG and Fiji are both towards the bottom as also are the really under-performing countries, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Most people, even in the larger countries of the Pacific,  have no idea how small are the populations of Niue, or Norfolk Island, Tuvalu or Nauru, which would be mere villages in the larger countries.

PNG alone (7 million) has more than 70% of the total population of all the PG countries combined (10 million).

I have a table in my article on my website (NarseyOnFiji) that shows that these top countries have had similar ranks in all the previous Pacific Games.

Take away the “wealth factor” of “mother” countries like Australia, France and NZ, then the real Pacific Games champion is Nauru, which paradoxically, also has one of the highest rates of NCDs in the Pacific.

A Table on my website article, with top rankings by “Medals Won per Population” for the recent Pacific Games, shows that these small countries have been regularly performing at the top by the criterion of “Medals per Population”.

The “Host Country” Effect

An ABC Pacific Beat program this week naively asked the New Caledonia Chief de Mission, if they were disappointed that New Caledonia had not done as well as the last time in 2011 and had been totally upstaged by PNG.

But it has been statistically proven in the Olympics and Commonwealth results that the “host country” does much better than usual, just as PNG has done for 2015.

The host country can enter more athletes because of the cost savings, and they usually perform better with the support of the “home crowds”.

Just for the three most successful countries (and the pattern is the same for all host countries), Graph 1 shows “Percent of Total Medals Won” from 1991 to 2015 (full table on my website article NarseyOnFiji), with the large black dots representing the “host country” years.

Host country graph

All three had their highest percentages won when they were “host countries” before going down to their usual levels:

Fiji with 23% Fiji in 2003 (then down to 14% this year)

New Caledonia with 32% in 2011 (down to 20% this year)

PNG with 20% in 1991, then gradually declining to 10% in 2003, before rising to a peak of 26% this year.

Expect PNG’s Percentage of Medals Won to be lower in future years, but I suspect by not as much given that PNG’s huge population will now take advantage of the improved sports facilities.

On my website article is data which shows that Tahiti won a high 25% when host in 1995, but the percentage declined thereafter to 14%.

Samoa won 14% as host in 2007, but this declined to 6% now.

Guam won 7% of total medals in 1991, but dropped to just 2% now.

For the 2015 Pacific Games, all countries would have won more medals if Australia and NZ had not been included.

The cash bonuses

For the 2015 Games, PNG gave large cash bonuses for successful athletes: 20,000 kina for gold medals, 10,000 for silver medals and 5,000 kina for gold medals.

This may not have done much for 2015, since athletic performances cannot be turned on and off like a tap, but it probably will in future games.

Such sums are large in the Pacific context, but they raise a bigger issue for the PG.

Is it fair that a “rich” country like PNG can give such financial incentives to its athletes but not so the poorer Pacific countries like Solomon Is and Vanuatu?

Of course, many countries in the world give large cash bonuses amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, houses and cars. South Korea gives a choice for gold medallists: a lump sum of about US$65,000 or a pension for the next 25 years amounting to more than 200,000 dollars.

Singapore apparently gives its gold medallists a gold bar worth 600,000 dollars (it’s a wonder that good athletes don’t emigrate to Singapore!)

But note also that some enlightened countries like Britain, Sweden and Norway refuse to give any cash bonuses thinking that national honour should be enough of an incentive, but Britain puts the successful athletes on their postage stamps, unfortunately used less and less these days.

Did Fiji do poorly?

Some members of the Fiji public have been complaining about the supposed “poor” performance of Fiji in the 2015 PG, compared to 2003.

But the 2003 Fiji performance should not be taken as the benchmark since the “host country” effect was in play.

Table 3 here gives the performances of all the countries for the different years and the average for all these games, by “Percentages of Total Medals Won” (excluding Australia and NZ in 2015).

Fiji’s performance in 2015 was only slightly less than in 2011, and a little bit worse than the average.

So also was New Caledonia’s performance in 2015 a bit below her average, but by the long term average, it is still by far the best performer by this criterion.

But note that the Pacific Games medal tally is a “zero sum game”: if some countries’ share goes up for whatever reason, other countries’ share MUST GO DOWN, since there is a fixed number of medals for each game.

Expect all countries’ shares to go down over the next twenty years, as PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu all realize their full potential.

The ‘Bad experiment’: including Australia and NZ

The inclusion of Australia and NZ in the 2015 South Pacific Games for rugby sevens, sailing, taekwondo and weightlifting, was not a good experiment, from athletes’ and the smaller countries’ point of view (all muddied by the ‘convenience’ of simultaneously completing some qualifying games for the Rio Olympics).

But I doubt if the Pacific Islands performance was improved in any great way, while 67 Pacific athletes were denied medals.

With some assistance from Lyndall Fisher (Fiji’s FASANOC) who gave me some events results available on the Internet (not the full results) I estimate that the extra medals which countries would have earned as follows (G=Gold, S=Silver, B=Bronze)

PNG :   17 more = (7G, 7S , 3B).

Tahiti:  16 more = (5G, 4S, 7B)

Fiji:      14 more = (7S, 7B).

NC        8 more = (2G, 5S, 1B)

Smaller countries would have really valued the extra medals and the boost to their confidence:

Samoa (2G); Guam (1G, 1S, 2B); Wallis and Futuna (2S, 1B); Tonga (4S); Marshall Is (7S),

Kiribati (3S, 5B); and American Samoa (4B).

Note that no Commonwealth Games ever invites great athletes from United States or great swimmers from China to “improve their own athletes’ performance”.

The great advantage of the Pacific Games is that our athletes compete with others of a similar standard, giving most a reasonable chance to win a medal, which they cannot have against the best Australian or NZ athletes.

Perversely, it would have been our more competitive athletes who were denied medals, while those in less competitive sports had their usual chances.

With this one “experiment” the SPG organizers have rendered the 2015 Games results and statistics an ‘anomaly’, which can only be corrected for analysis of trends by awarding ‘imaginary medals’ to those who came fourth, fifth or sixth in events where medals went to Australia and NZ.

While the Australian and NZ governments may have been delighted for their athletes to be invited to the PG, given Fiji’s pressure on them to reduce their influence in the Pacific Forum Secretariat, it is regrettable that they did not have the good sense to decline the invitation in the interests of the PG nations.

If Australia and NZ were really genuine about helping Pacific athletes lift their standards, they ought to annually invite large numbers of them to Australian and NZ national games, and pay for their participation, easily paid for out of their wasted aid funds in the Pacific.

This lack of concern for Pacific Island sports welfare by Australia and NZ is consistent with their continued exclusion of a competitive Pacific Island rugby team from their Super 15 competition, while poaching the best Island players and refusing to let them play for their home countries thereafter.

The lessons for PNG

While the Games were a great success, the TV coverage indicates that many events were poorly attended, suggesting that the sporting culture in this nation of more than 7 million people is a very thin layer, mostly among the urban peoples, while the rural areas are inevitably deprived.

With PNG bidding to hold a future Commonwealth Games, the PNG politicians should note that the host country always uses up massive amounts of tax payers’ resources, but the brand new sports facilities remain largely underutilized after the Games are over.

As was the case with the recent FIFA World Cup in South Africa, social commentators lamented that the same resources could have been used to improve health, education and poverty alleviation measures needed far more than the politicians enjoying two weeks of nationalistic flag waving confined to the capital city.

If PNG does go ahead, then they must improve the rural facilities and involvement in sports, especially in the other towns such as Lae, Arawa (in Boungainville) and Madang.

The Lessons for Tonga

With the 2019 Pacific Games supposed to be held in Tonga, there is already some opposition with worries that Tonga does not have the required resources.

While Tonga grandly informed the world that they does have their own royalty and  “do not have to fly in a prince” to open the Games, that is no use whatsoever to their athletes.

Far more worrying is the statement by one Tongan spokesman in Moresby that “We will conduct the Games within our means and with the resources we have at home,” a view apparently supported by Minogue, the executive director for the Pacific Games Council.

This view should be totally rejected by the Pacific Games countries.

Politicians’ nationalistic pride at holding the Pacific Games, must not be allowed to sacrifice the interests of the thousands of athletes who should be given the opportunity to compete in all the games normally played.

For athletes, the PG provides a most important long term ongoing benchmark, every four years, not provided by the Commonwealth or Olympic Games, for which few qualify.

Note that allegations have been made that in the 2015 PG, three sports (judo, archery and badminton) were deliberately left out by the host country PNG, allegedly because some countries like New Caledonia excelled in them. This should not be allowed to happen.

The Pacific Games must be “full scale” at every game.

The Tongan sports authorities should be reminded that holding the Pacific Games in 2019 will increase the percentage of medals won in that year alone, as the ‘host country effect”, but the impact will not be sustainable (as the examples I have given above of Guam and Samoa clearly show).

To minimise the burden on Tongan taxpayers, Australia, NZ and China should be requested to build the necessary facilities, with some sports and facilities spread to the other main island, Vavau.

Alternatively, Tonga could share the 2019 Games with Samoa, just as in future, Solomon Islands should be able share one Pacific Games with Vanuatu.

If the logistics of holding one Pacific Games in two countries prove too difficult, then the PG Committee should decide to hold it completely in Tahiti (which last hosted in 1995 with some countries boycotting in protest against the French nuclear tests in Murorua) or Fiji (which last hosted in 2003).

The OSIC Project: any real improvements?

Medal results and rankings are “zero sum games” because there is a fixed number of medals to be shared: if some countries win more than usual, then others must win less.

Of course, some countries (like PNG or Solomon Is) will have a long term trend of increasing shares of medals, while others decline.

But the real question for athletes, coaches and administrators is: are athletes’ performances improving by international standards? Are they running or swimming faster, throwing further or lifting more?

To answer that, the Games administrators must as a priority put together all their historical records collected at one point, and freely available to all through a database on the Internet.

Such a project is under way at the moment at the Oceania Sports Information Centre (OSIC) based at the Library of The University of the South Pacific, and managed currently by the USP Sports Librarian, Martin Burrows, who should be given every assistance by the PG countries.

Also on the databases should be the records for neighbours Australia and NZ, the Commonwealth Games, the Olympics and World events.

On the website can also be the kinds of analysis that I have presented in this article (and on my website NarseyOnFiji) similar to what can be found for the Olympics such as “Total Medals Won per GDP”.

A new Pacific Game: The Coconut Races

Of course, countries such as Australia, US and China usually win more medals in sports for which they have historically had appropriate facilities, such as athletics tracks and swimming pools, which poor Pacific countries, especially in rural areas, do not have.

But all Pacific people have coconut trees (the “tree of life”) which they have been climbing for thousands of years, to obtain food, drink, building materials, household utensils, etc.

To “level the playing field” with the developed countries, the PG organizers should introduce “the coconut races” at the next Pacific Games.

Take the time from ‘Go’ to climb a coconut tree of a fixed height until one coconut hits the ground.

What about a “coconut triathlon” climbing, picking, husking, and cracking the coconut?

Once established here, the Pacific countries should then demand could demand that the “coconut races” be introduced to the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics.

Just as the Pacific countries have had to build athletics tracks and swimming pools, the developed countries can manufacture their own artificial coconut trees and coconuts for practice.

Or, they can import them from us.

Or they can come to our countries to practice climbing coconut trees, just as Winter Olympics skiers go looking for snow.

Table 3
Table 3

Table 4

Table 4

Table 5

Table 5

Table 6

Table 6

Table 7

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Table 6

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