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Indigenous athletes compete at Olympics

Looking for indigenous participation at Athens 2004? Try the South Pacific.
Oceania comprises Australia, New Zealand and 13 other countries that are
home to the island cultures of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia.

Kiribati (pronounced KIR-eebas), for example, is making its Olympics debut.
Until 1979, this string of coral atolls riding the Equator and the
International Dateline was known as the British Gilbert Islands and the
U.S. Phoenix and Line Islands.

Among the athletes from Kiribati are 20-year-old Kaitinano Mwemweata and
21-year-old Karianako Nariki, both 100-meter sprinters.

Mwemweata's goal is to have her snapshot taken with Marion Jones (in 2000
she was the first woman to gain five Olympic medals).

Back home, Kiribati's 90 track and field athletes must share nine pairs of
running shoes when they train. For their Olympic events, Mwemweata and
Nariki received new shoes courtesy of Nike.

The upswing in Pacific Islanders at the Olympics is partly due to the
location of the summer Olympics four years ago - Australia. Also, last
December's opening of the Oceania High Performance Training Centre in
Auckland, New Zealand is helping to move athletes into world competition.
The International Association of Athletics Federations, the regulatory body
for track and field, has built training facilities on all continents. It
encourages athletes from developing countries by providing scholarships to
its state-of-the-art training centers.

Tereapii Tapoki, a 24-year-old discus thrower from the Cook Islands, and
Ana Po'uhila, a 24-year-old shot putter from Tonga, are examples of HPTC
scholarship recipients who made it to Athens. The HPTC Web site says Tapoki
comes from Mauke, an island of less than 200 people. On her last visit
home, a supply ship hadn't visited for two months, meaning empty shelves in
the shops. Even the most rudimentary equipment is also lacking in these
island countries, making the HPTC invaluable for the shaping of world-class
athletes.

Most of the South Seas Olympic athletes are either track and field or
weightlifters. It's almost impossible for small countries to produce
Olympic teams that qualify against big players like the United States or
Australia. For a number of the Pacific Islanders, the road to Athens is
paved by wildcards for non-team sports. Wildcards, a certain number for
each country, are invitations to individual athletes who do not qualify for
the Olympics, but still meet certain standards and have ranking in their
home country or region.

From Micronesia to the Cook Islands, almost every Oceanic country has sent
weightlifters. Nauru's Olympic team consists solely of weightlifters, two
men and one woman. Formerly called Pleasant Island and administered by
Australia until 1968, Nauru is the world's smallest republic, only three
miles wide and four miles long.

Not all Oceanic athletes sailed to Athens on wildcards, however. Nauru's
male weightlifters, Itte Detenamo and Yukio Peter, qualified for their
spots in the Olympic lineup. So did several athletes from Fiji, Samoa,
American Samoa, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

Tonga is unique among the Pacific Islands because it has an Olympic medal
winner. Heavyweight boxer Paea Wolfgramm took silver in 1996 at the Atlanta
games. This year's Olympic team has members competing in various sports,
but Tonga hopes to repeat its past medal glory with heavyweight boxer Doug
Ma'afu Hawke. Hawke, who kickboxed professionally in New Zealand under the
name of Doug Viney, raised a tempest among New Zealand boxers when he
reinvented himself as an amateur heavyweight. The transformation lessened
their chances of winning qualifying rounds that could send them to Athens.

Fiji, a former British colony, has been a South Pacific trading hub for
centuries. It has the highest economic and income levels of its island
neighbors and has sent the largest (20) and most diversified contingent to
Athens. Two team members are mid-distance runners.

Women's 400-meter sprinter Makelesi Bulikiobo is the first Fijian to run an
Olympic qualifying time. Men's 800-meter sprinter Isireli Naikelekelevesi
set a new 800-meter national record in early August, but it is still over
the 1 minute, 46 second Olympic qualifying standard.

Australia and New Zealand dominate the Oceanic presence at the games - the
Olympics Web site lists 802 Australian and 278 New Zealand athletes. But
that preeminence does not include indigenous people.

The Australian Sports Commission lists nine: Three boxers, two sprinters,
one men's soccer player, one women's softball player and two men's water
polo players.

New Zealand has 16 Maori competitors, according to the Maori Sports Awards
Web site. There are five women's hockey players, four women's basketball
players, and a women's Taekwondo competitor. Two Maori men are on the
hockey team and four are on the basketball team. On the Paralympics team,
there is one wheelchair rugby competitor and two track and field
competitors.