August 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Racing against time

By Kieran Pender
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The I-Kiribati Olympic sprinter hoping to draw attention to his nation’s climate catastrophe

The nation of Kiribati, a collection of atolls spread across the Pacific Ocean’s vast expanse, has never won an Olympic medal. Prior to the 2021 Tokyo Games, just nine I-Kiribati had ever represented their nation’s colourful flag – depicting a frigatebird flying over the water above a golden sun – on this global stage. Lataisi Mwea, a sprinter who is part of Kiribati’s three-athlete delegation in Tokyo, travelled to the Olympics with humble ambitions. “I want to get my personal best, and have a good experience against such big, strong athletes,” he says. “I want to learn a lot from it.”

Twenty-year-old Lataisi came to Australia in June 2019, as part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s PacificAus Sports program. He had intended to live and train on the Gold Coast for 12 months, ahead of the Olympics. Then COVID-19 happened. Kiribati slammed its borders shut, leaving I-Kiribati abroad stranded. Other than a limited number of chartered repatriation flights, the borders remain closed 17 months later (the nation has recorded just two cases – seafarers from Papua New Guinea – and no local transmission). Kiribati has had to establish a financial support program for “stranded citizens”.

Not that Lataisi is troubled. “Honestly I didn’t really want to go back,” he laughs. “I want to become stronger and faster, train more and more, and see where I end up.” He misses his family (“I videocall them a lot”) but is otherwise happy on the Gold Coast. “It feels very different from Kiribati. It took me a while to adapt, but now I really like it here,” he says, though despite learning English as a child, he admits to struggling with the language barrier. “The Aussie slang – it took me a while to understand.”

Lataisi is a multi-talented athlete. He grew up in Tarawa, Kiribati’s capital and most-populated atoll, but moved to Fiji as a 12-year-old on a tennis scholarship. “But I wasn’t really a fan of it, so I quit,” he says. “Then I started doing athletics.” Lataisi began his athletics career in high jump; he holds Kiribati’s national record. But following his arrival on the Gold Coast, Lataisi transitioned to sprinting at the encouragement of his Australian coach.

“I wanted to learn more – learn about sprinting – so I could pass on that knowledge when I returned to Kiribati. Then COVID came and I couldn’t [go home]. But my coach told me that I could actually run … I didn’t really want to switch, but my coach advised me to give it a go.”

Since the country made its Olympic debut in 2004, I-Kiribati have competed in the men’s and women’s 100-metre track events and weightlifting. In Tokyo, Kinaua Biribo becomes Kiribati’s first Olympic judoka. “Thankfully it’s worked,” Lataisi says of his switch to sprinting. “And now I’m in the Olympics.”

After the Games, and hotel quarantine, Lataisi will return to the Gold Coast, where he is completing a coaching course. As and when Kiribati reopens its borders, he hopes to return home and inspire the next generation of Olympians. “I’m excited to go home. I hope one of them wants to follow in my footsteps.” Lataisi is also eyeing the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

But he has grander ambitions. Lataisi is hoping to emulate the impact of weightlifter David Katoatau, a now-retired three-time Olympian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, who used his sporting fame to highlight Kiribati’s existential climate plight.

“I beg the countries of the world to see what is happening to Kiribati,” David wrote in a moving open letter in 2015. “We will be the first to go. It will be the extinction of a race. Open your eyes and look to the other low lying level islands around the Pacific – they will soon fall with us. In the not too distant future we will all drown.” (David’s younger brother Ruben, also a weightlifter, is Kiribati’s third Olympian in Tokyo.)

Most of Kiribati’s 32 atolls and sole island, spread across an area of the Pacific the size of India, sit less than 2 metres above sea level. Over the past decade, storms and king tides have wreaked havoc, while fresh water is in increasingly short supply. “We are really struggling with climate change,” says Lataisi. “The sea levels are rising more and more.”

In 2014, the Kiribati government led by president Anote Tong purchased 6000 acres in Fiji, but this “migration with dignity” project proved controversial. I-Kiribati are deeply religious, and many – including the nation’s current president, Taneti Maamau – pray for divine intervention. “We try to isolate ourselves from the belief that Kiribati will be drowned,” Taneti told his parliament in 2017. “The ultimate decision is God’s.”

Nonetheless, David Katoatau’s blend of sporting success and climate activism made him a household name in Kiribati and garnered much international attention. Lataisi wants to do the same. “I’ll try and copy [David],” he says. “The longer I stay in Australia, the more I train, the more I hope I can be like him one day. We’re just a few metres above sea level. I really need to make my name and hope that people see what we’re going through, and help us.”

It is no small irony that Lataisi aspires for climate action while his Olympic dreams are partly funded by a notable climate laggard. A recent United Nations–backed report ranked Australia last among 193 countries for climate action. Lataisi is reluctant to be drawn on the toxic climate politics of his temporary homeland. “I don’t know,” he says when asked if Australia should be doing more. Olympic hopes aside, if Kiribati is to even remain inhabitable in the decades ahead, more is urgently needed.

Kieran Pender

Kieran Pender is a writer and lawyer. He is an honorary lecturer at the Australian National University College of Law.

 

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