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Athletes from Kiribati make Games history

Their athletes are so poor they train in bare feet. When they converge to compete on a crushed coral track, they have to share running shoes.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2004 18:27 IST
Paul Majendie (Reuters)
Paul Majendie (Reuters)

Their athletes are so poor they train in bare feet. When they get together to compete on a crushed coral track, they have to share running shoes.

Now, with sparkling red spikes donated by Nike and a welcome from the world that blew them away, Kakianako Nariki and Kaitinano Mwemweata already have their sights set on Beijing.

Kiribati welcomed the world into the new Millennium. Now the Pacific islanders are making history as the latest nation to join the Olympic movement.

"They only have 10 pairs of shoes between 80-90 athletes in Kiribati. They train in bare feet and the track is packed down coral with grass growing out of it. Can you image how sharp that coral is," said their Olympic attache, Rosemary Mula.

"Each month they have a competition and that is where they share the shoes. They run the race, take them back to the start line and give them to the next person who fits that shape," the British-born attache told Reuters in an interview.

Kiribati, a string of stunningly beautiful coral atolls, was the first inhabited place on earth to see in the new Millennium as it sits on the International Date Line. The world's media flocked there for the new century sunrise.

Mula said it is time to move on.

"The first country to see in the new Millennium -- they have been dining out on that. But that raison d'etre has passed. Now the world of sport has put them on the map as the newest member of the Olympic family," she said.


For the two sprinters and 16-year-old weightlifter Meameaa Thomas, the opening ceremony in Athens was mind-blowing.

Mwemweata could not get over the lights.

"She turned round to me and said 'So many lights, so much electricity. That is very expensive.' We were all just jumping up and down. It was a remarkable moment," Mula said.

Mwemweata wore a woven grass top and a skirt of coconut leaves. The men were in skirts of woven grass with belts made of braided women's hair.

Kiribati can also lay claim to one of the world's most beautiful flags -- a golden frigate bird soaring above sun and sea.

So how did the Kiribati trio do?

Mula bridles at any comparisons with Equatorial Guinea swimmer "Eric the Eel" Moussambani, who struggled to finish his heat at the Sydney Olympics and became an instant celebrity.

"Eric the Eel could barely swim. These are serious athletes," Mula said.

His coach reckons that teenage weightlifter Thomas shows promise after he finished 13th in a field of 21 in the men's 85kg.

Mwemweata ran a personal best of 13.07 seconds in her 100 metre heat, finishing second last.

"She was so thrilled and kept saying over and over 'I am the national champion of Kiribati'," said Mula.

Nariki did not perform so well as there were false starts in his 100 metres. Terrified of coming all this way and being disqualified, he trailed in last in his heat in a time of 11.62 seconds.

"Athens is just beyond their dreams. They had no idea there was such a big city in the world," said Mula.

"It has opened their eyes that they are places outside Kiribati which are very different. But they are happy to go home to the quiet of the islands."

But their curiosity is far from sated.

"They are ready for Beijing now," Mula said.

First Published: Aug 25, 2004 18:27 IST