Sport and athletic achievement are—when we keep drugs and money out of the picture—one of the few human activities with few if any downsides.
As we saw last week, they provide us with moments of unity and pride the like of which we don’t often see elsewhere.
Individual and simple team sports are low-cost ways of occupying our youth and providing them with invaluable lessons about hard work, achievement and excellence.
In other words, the very attributes that are so lacking when we bemoan the state of society today.
One thing is particularly clear: for whatever reason, Vanuatu’s athletes seem to operate at a higher baseline standard than countries many times our size. Our beach volleyball team came within a couple of rallies of an Olympic berth. Our rowers proved themselves worthy of standing on the world stage. Likewise our boxers and table tennis wunderkind Joshua Shing.
And now, our latest generation of football players is poised to showcase their achievement at football’s premier global event.
Who can read these facts and not ask, ‘How cool is that?’
But there’s more to sport than just that. Look past the puffery and patriotism of competitive sports, and there’s an entire universe of personal discovery and growth.
Some of us were never crazy about having to put up with the testosterone-fueled atmosphere of highly organised team sport, or the ritual battlefield of the rugby pitch. Not all of us are wired that way.
But everyone benefits from fitness, from the victory of each personal best, from the pleasure of taking pains to do something right. Whether it’s running a couple of kilometres of dusty back roads, swimming out to the marker buoy and back, the simplest activities become something more—something better—when we strive.
More than one parent has observed too that sport provides the opportunity for children to socialise, to learn to handle stress, and to express themselves cooperatively.
When the activities are coached and organised properly, co-educational sport also provides an invaluable opportunity to build understanding and respect across the gender gap. There are few countries in the world that need this more than Vanuatu.
Far from being a Pacific pipsqueak, our little runt of a country has consistently shown what its athletes can achieve when they push themselves. We have seldom done worse than punch above our weight. And that’s with only a relatively small proportion of our young population getting even a passing chance to do more than kick a ball across a patch of dusty—or muddy—ground.
Sport needs to be integrated into the national development framework. It is mentioned only once in the National Sustainable Development Plan, and it’s treated as a stand-alone activity. This, right here, is why we have so little coherence and cohesion in sport nationwide.
For many of those who have made us so proud over the years, their pursuit of excellence has been a lonely one. It’s true, not one of them reached their full potential without support from family, friends, sponsors, trainers and the generousity of countless individuals.
But if you look at each of our success stories, you’ll see one or two key individuals who built something beautiful out of an ad hoc, cobbled-together network of support. What could we achieve if we all did just a little more?
A couple of governments ago, the Daily Post covered a meeting between some of our star athletes and the prime minister of the day. The PM smiled and congratulated them, and promised to push for a multi-million vatu donation from government.
Afterward, the reporter said to their coach that they must be thrilled to know their budget would be plumped up like that. The coach smiled patiently and explained that this was the third time that government support had been promised, but not one vatu had ever been received.
The reason we tell this story is not to highlight hypocrisy or empty promises. Nor is it an argument to divert vast sums from other more pressing challenges. The point is that we talk about sport when it suits us, we all take pride in those who achieve… but we don’t do enough to help others rise as well.
Sport doesn’t require opulent facilities. It doesn’t require the diversion of vast sums. It only requires that we care about it enough to include it in the conversation.