As last night’s Olympic Opening Ceremony at the Maracana stadium was an introduction to all things Rio, people were expecting no less from the party capital than what they got - a drum banging, samba filled, confetti laden celebration of life, love and people. Though what they might not have been expecting was a team of just three athletes, representing a small island nation in the Pacific, to be the ones leading the way in keeping the party spirit up throughout the parade of nations.
As the 106th team to take to the floor with their flag, Kiribati’s high energy was a welcome 'breath of fresh Pacific air' for the crowd, who could have been forgiven for failing to sustain the high energy they arrived with, over two hours and 100 countries earlier. Flag bearer David Katoatau showed off his dance moves, delighting audiences in the stands and at home, with many sharing their support on twitter.
What came as a surprise for many watching last night was in fact highly anticipated by Commonwealth Champion David. Speaking ahead of the event, David said: “I’m so excited to carry my flag for my country. I know my people are going to be proud of me, especially my family. I’m going to dance and the crowd will love it!” He was not wrong.
David made a name for himself with his dancing at previous weightlifting events, including the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014, where he won the hearts of the crowd as well as a gold medal. David competes in the Men’s 105kg Weightlifting event on August 15th, and whatever the result, fans can be sure he will put on a great show.
But David is not the only member of the Kiribati team who is bringing the Pacific party to Rio. Whilst at the Olympics, Kiribati track athlete John Ruka will be celebrating his 21st birthday with a bang. His birthday falls on August 13th, the same day he will compete in the Men’s 100m event, giving the whole team cause for some dancing afterwards.
Kiribati’s third team member, 18 year old track athlete Karitaake Tewaaki, enjoyed the dancing at the welcome ceremony so much that she wants to take it up herself: “The dancing was so amazing. I really want to learn how to dance the salsa!” Karitaake will be competing in the Women’s 100m event on August 12th, which will be her Olympic debut. Though she admits being nervous about the event, she is taking the experience in her stride and making the most of the opportunity.
Speaking in an interview before the ceremony, Karitaake said: “I’m nervous, as this is my first time here, but I’m going to do my best for my country.” Talking about her competitors, she explained: ”God made us all alike. He gave us two legs, two hands, one brain and one heart. So I think we can be like them – we can be champions one day.”
Karitaake’s thoughtful comments reflect the core Olympic values upon which the Games are built. During his speech at the Opening Ceremony, Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, reminded us of these values, stating: “In this Olympic world, we are all equal.”
As well as equality, last night’s event also took the opportunity to celebrate diversity on the world stage. Whilst hosting the ceremony, Brazil’s “queen of diversity”, actress and presenter Regina Casé, encouraged the audience to “look for similarities and celebrate diversity” during the show, as hundreds of multi coloured dancers filled the floor.
Watching Pacific nations such as Kiribati mix and mingle with teams from opposite corners of the world, it was easy to see how events like this can build a sense of unity amongst teams that might previously have had no connection with one another.
Whilst the world’s spotlight was shining on the Maracana, Rio also took the opportunity to draw attention to two global issues currently shaking the Earth: climate change and the refugee crisis.
The issue of climate change played a central role in the Opening Ceremony show, which took the audience through issues of CO2 emissions, global warming and rising sea levels, as well as making the issue a part of its Olympic legacy with it’s planned athletes’ forest. Each athlete was given a seed to plant in the Olympic park as part of the forest which will form Rio 2016’s living legacy of 11,000 trees.
Whilst some countries are still catching up with the international community’s acknowledgment of the seriousness of climate change, Kiribati sits in the eye of the storm at just 2m above sea level. Rising sea levels are particularly threatening to coastal Brazillian communities and Pacific nations alike, but as last night’s moving event showed us, this is not a problem to be solved by individual or even a small group of nations, but with collective global action.
Taburimai Tewaki, Sport Officer at the Kiribati Ministry of Women, Youth and Social Affairs and member of the Kiribati Olympic team hopes that Kiribati’s presence at the Games will help win their campaign against climate change:
“We would like to ask the Olympic family to fight for us on climate change. If we raise our voice together with all of the other Olympians, I hope that the first world countries will listen and work to reduce the effect of industry on the ozone layer.”
Rising sea levels in Kiribati has in recent years led to a Kiribati citizen claiming status as a ‘climate change refugee’, which if accepted, would have made him the first of his kind. The threat of displacement due to rising sea levels is very real to many Pacific communities, making last night’s appearance of the Olympics’ first ever refugee team particularly significant to Pacific islands such as Kiribati.
The Refugee Olympic Athlete’s Team stepped out as the penultimate team and was met with a wall of sound in support for the athletes and urgency for the global community to act. There was a real sense of unity amongst the crowd and though the audience had come for a party, they looked and sounded more than willing to confront major global issues whilst celebrating together.
Despite being a time to put political interests aside, events like the Olympic Games are undoubtedly intended to unite the international community under common values. If the Olympic Games can get 207 nations dancing together (with the help of Kiribati of course), then it certainly has a role to play in getting them to work together too.
By Alice Toomer - McAlpine of The Reporters' Academy