Cokes Legacy: The Business of Athletics
IT is the biggest school games of its kind in the world in terms of participation. Held over two days with more than 3000 athletes competing from around Fiji representing about 130 schools, with more than 20,000 spectators – what is now known as the Cokes Games is easily one of Fiji’s biggest annual sporting events. Media coverage on television, radio and on newspapers in the weeks leading up to the Games has seen the event grow in the past 15 years. Some would say that it has taken on a life of its own, some others argue that stakeholders will need to be careful because such attention has been focused on areas which in the long run could affect the education and the sporting system. Because the Coke Games has grown in proportion to how the media has developed over the years, it means that coverage of the event has now become a regional affair with a considerable social media following all over the world. But what is the Cokes Games legacy? And what is its future as a development tool for Fiji’s future sporting heroes. Former champion athlete and current Athletics Fiji president Joseph Rodan Snr says it is an event that started way before his time. “Well the Coke Games, when you really look at it, probably started over 50 or 60 years ago,’’ Rodan said. “It started off as the Inter-Secondary School Athletics Championship even before I was running. So the history of the Games goes along long way back and its popularity is largely due to your school rivalries and the passion with which the various alumni support their teams.” Rodan added that the other great significance of the Games is that it continues to turn out athletes who later become national reps in other sports, not only track and field. “I know with track and field we look at the Coke Games as an important part of our development and of selecting our athletes as they move on.” Some names that come to mind as coming through the Cokes Games experience are the likes of ruggers Joeli Vidiri for Queen Victoria School in the early 1990s, or Vilimone Delasau of Ba, Fero Lasagavibau for Lelean, Netani Talei for Marist, or swim queen Caroline Pickering for Suva Grammar School or the likes of Manasa Mataele who recently made the Crusaders team. These are some of the few who went on to make it big in other sports. Then there are those who made it big in track and field in the region such as Banuve Tabakaucoro. This year the biggest development is that Lautoka now has its own synthetic track, which could help raise the bar for the sport overall. In 2015, for the first time in history Natabua High School won the boys title and two years before that Jasper Williams created history for the girls division. “The talent is in the West, they just need some proper coaching and facilities and they will be unbeatable,’’ Fiji’s sprint coach Bola Tafo’ou said. “In Suva we have everything, but if we can have just a simple track in areas like Vanua Levu and the interior it will boost sports in Fiji.” The Games has always been a place where dreams were made or squashed. Joe Rodan once proudly carried the flag for his school, Marist, in the 1970s but little knew how it would eventually take him to unimagined places. “I just wanted to run and represent my school, and I trained hard. But it got me to travel to other places and instilled in me qualities of working hard – that was one legacy of the Games for me and it sowed the seeds of things that helped me later in my life.” “In the development of sports Coke Games plays an important part not only in athletics but in all sports, because the Games produces the best out of the competing athletes and most go on to other sports, whether it’s
athletics, track and field, rugby, soccer or any other sport. The Games provides a basis for the success of these athletes when they go into other sports.”
THE GLAMOUR OF THE GAMES
To compete in the Coke Games is every school kid’s dream. When a young kid from a village in Macuata qualifies to make the trip to Suva for the Coke Games, there will immediately be much hype in his family or even his village community. The village will often help raise funds for the school in order to make the trip possible. The story will be the same for a team of six athletes making the trip from Ratu Finau Secondary School in Lakeba, Lau to compete. Just making the trip and competing in front of thousands in an electrifying atmosphere will blow their socks off. It will be an experience they will never forget and the exposure to such an event cannot be measured. The glamour of the games is such that it helps drive efforts to participate and to be the best. People remember all too well when a relatively unknown Inia Sili of Shree Gurunanak Khalsa Secondary from Labasa stepped into the ANZ Stadium in 2013 and became a national name in just days. The Macuata flyer came back for three years to rule the long distance scene in Fiji and gain a scholarship to the United States. Who would forget the likes of Ratu Tira Narara, raised in obscurity in a settlement outside Lautoka by a single mother and who ran his way to stardom for Ba Provincial and later for Marist to become the fastest 400 metre runner in the country. The Games has also become a place for realising dreams, whatever kind of background you come from. It has been a place where family traditions have been set in stone. Rodan will tell you that the Games has been a family affair for them; his son Joseph Rodan Jnr was also a star in the mid1990s, moving on to being the top athlete in the region for decathlon. Sprint king Banuve Tabakaucoro was not the first in his family to run, with his mum Litia being a champion sprinter for Adi Cakobau and Dad Josefa for Marist in the 1980s. With families and communities backing their loved ones who are part of the event, it has certainly lived up to its nametag as the Games of our Lives.
Today Rodan wears two hats, as the head of Athletics Fiji and also the man at the helm of FASANOC – the parent body of sports in the country. He is aware of how far some schools go to win. Years ago he stated that it was not a level playing field as some schools had resources and some did not. Some schools had good coaches while others don’t. “I think what is important that we deal with it from an education point of view, that way we will always stay on track and obviously those that don’t have resources have to work smarter,’’ he told Mai Life in an interview in 2010. Seven years later, his opinion has not changed but he agrees the standards have been raised. Sources reveal that many top schools now give scholarships especially for athletics, giving rise to a constant movement of students from school to school. Schools that have the resources to do so offer incentives in the form of offering to buy school equipment, uniforms or provide boarding fees. A few years ago, a directive from a senior education officer to shift all top athletes in the Division to one school so that they may create history and win the Games for the first time was leaked to social media. As a result, this chain of events has lifted the bar in competition and brought renewed energy and interest in the Games in anticipation of a new winner. Trying to gain that winning edge and school rivalry has also managed to pull some out of the doldrums. However, last year, many schools pulled out of the Cokes due to the damaging impact of Tropical Cyclone Winston. For those that competed, their struggles exemplified their community’s sense of progress. “If we used the cyclone as an excuse, it means we are beaten,’’ a parent told me. “We know coming to the Games would make our children happy and proud of their achievement.” Queen Victoria School and St Johns Cawaci represented their schools at last year’s Games, even though they did not have schools after the cyclone’s destruction. Although students were scattered all over to other institutions to continue their studies, they still managed to train together as a team. “Being part of the Games and competing as QVS was perhaps the best thing for these young boys who were traumatised during the cyclone,” former student and teacher Elemaca Ravulo said during the Games last year. “It gave them a sense of normalcy.” The level of school rivalry is what drives the competition.
Marist’s Pasio Uluilakepa on his way to setting a new record in the Intermediate Shot Put last year. He has since gained a rugby scholarship to Wellington this year.