Cook Islands National Games 2020
'You don't have to be a big country to be a great sporting nation,' says IOC President Thomas Bach in commending the Cook Islands for holding national games in the time of a global COVID-19 Pandemic. He said the fact that the Cook Islands is a small Pacific island nation and doing so is a mark of confidence and sends a strong message to the world.
Variances in Oceania
While important to the development of countries, there are sharp variances in the design, frequency, and commitment to national games in the Oceania Continent. Almost all countries have held national games but resource constraints and changing national priorities impede regularity.
Australia and New Zealand (NZ) have recognisably healthy national commitments to sport and physical activity. In contrast, the Pacific Small Island Developing States (Pacific SIDS) face long-standing challenges, particularly national budget responsiveness to sports, and for fairly legitimate reasons which require innovative approaches to alter in the long-term.
Competing priorities in national budgets
The national budgets of Pacific SIDS focus on economic survival and target trade deficits and debt management among prevailing issues including limited natural resources, natural hazards, climate change as an existential threat, food insecurity, obesity, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) among others.
The impact and utility of sport and physical activity are protracted with benefits largely intangible and defying concrete quantification. This further impairs the lobby and advocacy required for support, particularly funding assistance, capital projects, and athlete development support from national coffers.
As such, the periodic injection that swells a sports budget in a Pacific SIDS occurs during an Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games or Pacific Games year where funds are dedicated to supporting a national team.
The critical importance of National Games
Sporting events or games at national level are an important confluence for the consolidation of high performing athletes and teams from smaller communities which according to country, may be labelled district, provincial, or state.
National Games are used for talent identification - in countries such as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Palau this is one of the primary reasons for games planning and implementation. It is also used for the strengthening of the National Federations (NFs) in countries. The games are also critical in terms of harnessing government support and engagement in terms of national development.
Through the requisite demands for fitness, exercise, rest, discipline and good health, including the mental and emotional health that sports require, national games provide motivation for the lifelong practice and development of a sporting culture in communities. In this respect, national games are a mechanism for organic practice of disciplined physical activity.
National games are also a mechanism for equality and equity in that they lead to the decentralisation of government and municipal support toward the development of public spaces and sporting facilities in rural and remote areas within countries.
They are critical toward the identification and medium to long-term development of elite athletes that represent countries at sub-regional, regional and international levels.
National games are also critical in that they provide the deep cross-sectional visibility required to keep sport and physical activity in the minds and hearts of people and communities. They are a powerful cultural tool that help bridge differences, soften ethnic tension, build peace, promote social cohesion, cooperation, tolerance and are a space for the recognition and celebration of humanity.
Aside from the relatively healthy responsiveness to sport in Australia and NZ, in the Pacific SIDS, some attempts have been previously made to organise national games but these have largely been in preparation for regional and international competition years.
There is intent to develop and regularise national games on an annual or biennial basis but it requires stronger lobby and advocacy in order to coalesce and solidify commitment from national governments and their partners.