Pacific Island athletes overcome more than competitors in Rio

Overcoming hardship in Pacific nations the first step in Olympic dreams


11 Aug 2016 | AU

In what could turn out to be one of the most inspiring stories of the Rio Olympics, the world #1 Fijian Rugby 7’s has overcome February’s category 5 Tropical Cyclone Winston and its subsequent devastation of basic supplies like water to emerge as a strong contender to take out their country’s first gold medal, and the first gold medal for Rugby 7s at the Olympics ever. 

At the 2015 Fiji Sports Awards, Ben Ryan, coach of one of the most popular and successful rugby 7s teams in the world, the Fiji 7s, revealed the real recipe for the team’s success: rest, nutrition and hydration. Ben said that the team is physically blessed and hardworking but rest, nutrition and hydration has been key to preparation and development as individual athletes and the successful team that they have become. Water is a key part of their secret. 

Most people know, that to maintain good physical and cognitive functions and thermoregulation you must drink eight tall glasses of water every day. When you sweat and exercise, you must drink more water. Professional athletes hydrate before training, sip water at regular intervals and rehydrate after each session. If they don’t, and fluid losses are not replaced, they risk not only a reduction in exercise quality, effort and skill performance, but dehydration leading to cardiovascular strain, core temperature rises and heat stress, leading to collapse and even death.    

All of these hydration recommendations assume that the water consumed for health and physical performance is safe to drink. Every person needs safe water to live and be healthy, and every athlete needs safe water to perform at their best. Every athlete at the Olympic Games in Rio will have water as part of their preparation, training, nutrition and recovery plan. However, their access to safe drinking water in the days, months and years of preparation to compete in the Olympic Games is an uneven playing field. 

The countries of the Pacific Islands are disproportionately affected by the world’s water and sanitation crisis. After the cyclone, Fiji has struggled to restore the infrastructure needed to supply safe water to communities. Their neighbours Papua New Guinea, who have eight athletes competing across six sports in this Olympic Games, has the greatest percentage of people living without access to safe water in the world. The Solomon Islands, who has three athletes competing in two sports in Rio, and who will host the Pacific Games in 2023, has more than 70% of the population who do not have access to proper sanitation. The athletes in the Pacific region have overcome so much to compete for their country at the Olympic Games, and they, like our Aussie athletes, are celebrated and important public figures.

Just as clean, safe water is crucial to optimum performance of athletes, the immense power of sport to unite communities and provide a platform to teach about health, sanitation and nutrition is key to the battle to bring safe water to some of the world’s poorest people. In my work with WaterAid in the Pacific region, grassroots sports programs and athlete ambassadors are seen as a currently underutilised network to engage communities in important conversations and empower them with their rights to safe water, and sanitation and improved hygiene behaviours. Something WaterAid is actively working on in the pursuit of lasting change, as is detailed in this article by GameChangers .   

So while you’re enjoying the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio think not only what our neighbours in the Pacific have overcome as athletes to be there, but how unavoidably linked we all are to water, for life, for health, for physical performance. Water is so fundamental to sporting success and incredible physical achievements, but if it’s not safe to drink nor abundantly available it stops many potential and aspiring Olympic medallists early and quickly in their tracks. A big shout out to the Fiji 7s who are in pursuit of their country’s first Gold Medal finish. The whole of Fiji will no doubt be awake and watching, no matter what time it is! 

Stephanie Franet is a lover of the Pacific and believer in the power of sport to affect positive change. As the Sport for Development Program Officer for WaterAid Australia, she’s working with WaterAid PNG and the national federations of netball and volleyball to design sport, leadership and hygiene behaviour Programs that are mutually beneficial for the development of the sport and development of the individuals and communities of Papua New Guinea.