Daniel Etchells

With the curtain having come down on Port Moresby 2015 in Papua New Guinea’s capital, I sit here in the eerie surroundings of a near-deserted Stadium reflecting on a multi-sport event that at times has bamboozled but will ultimately go down as a ground-breaking spectacle in the history of Pacific sport.

Talk in the build-up was heavily focused on the participation of Australia and New Zealand for the first time in the 52-year life span of the Games and, although the disqualification of the latter’s under-23 football team from the Olympic qualifying tournament has seriously threatened to overshadow the significance of that, the fact remains that the addition of two sporting powerhouses has and will almost certainly continue to be a major plus-point for the Pacific’s quadrennial showpiece.

The question over whether a truly continental Oceania Games can be established will undoubtedly continue to rumble on for the next few years, but for now, following 14 days of intense sporting action here, I think it's safe to say the Pacific Games are in extremely safe hands.

Just 24 years after last hosting the Games in 1991, an edition which at the time was considered to have set unparalleled standards, Port Moresby has strived to take Pacific sport to a new level once more. 

Prior to officially closing the 15th edition of the Games this evening, Vidhya Lakhan, President of the Pacific Games Council (PGC), claimed the city had achieved exactly that and also successfully delivered on all the promises it made when elected hosts in September 2009.

The final vote was 25-22 in favour of Port Moresby against Tonga, a country which just over three years later won the hosting rights for the 2019 edition and now faces the unenviable task of succeeding a Games backed by heavy Governmental support and finances.

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New Zealand's expulsion from the men's Olympic qualification tournament following their semi-final win against Vanuatu provided one of the Games' biggest talking points ©Port Moresby 2015

Concerns over the cost of staging the next Games have been raised by Tonga Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva and Chamber of Commerce President John Chapman, and given the level of funds invested in Port Moresby 2015 - more than K1.2 billion (£2.8 billion/$4.3 billion/€3.9 billion) in sporting infrastructure - it’s easy to see why.

There is no suggestion by any means that Tonga needs to throw that sort of cash at the Games. Indeed Chapman told Radio Australia earlier this week that the Government is looking at spending TOP$140 million (£42 million/$66 million/€61 million), albeit that it is likely to be around three times that amount.

But such has been the spend on Port Moresby 2015, it will inevitably lead to future prospective hosts scratching their heads and asking ‘how do we better that?’ without having to dig deep into their pockets. Similar questions are currently being posed in Europe on the back of its first continental Games in the oil-rich Azerbaijani capital of Baku last month.

It mustn't be forgotten though that like Azerbaijan, the ambitions of Papua New Guinea go far beyond hosting a continental or regional competition. While the former is eyeing a future Olympic bid, the latter seemingly has its sights set on the 2026 Commonwealth Games with Sports Minister Justin Tkatchenko and Port Moresby Governor Powes Parkop among the latest names to give their backing in this past week.

In fact, just this evening, the Governor General of Papua New Guinea Sir Michael Ogio put his weight behind a bid when addressing the crowd here during the Port Moresby 2015 Closing Ceremony. In answer to his own question, “can Papua New Guinea host a future edition of the Commonwealth Games?”, Ogio gave an emphatic response - “YES WE CAN”.

But can they really?

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The Pacific Games 2015 Closing Ceremony signalled the end of 14 days of sporting action ©Port Moresby 2015

Based on what we’ve seen during Port Moresby 2015, there are definitely a number of reasons to believe that Papua New Guinea’s ambitions are a lot more than a pipe dream.

For one, the country's capital boasts world-class venues such as the brand-new purpose built Taurama Aquatic Centre and the PNG Power Dome, which will now revert back to its original name of the Sir John Guise Indoor Stadium following the completion of the Games.

Furthermore, as Tkatchenko has pointed out, the current scale of the Pacific Games in terms of the number of athletes competing is similar to that of the Commonwealth Games. 

However, it hasn't all been hunky-dory at Port Moresby 2015 over this past fortnight with some of the most basic fundamentals of hosting a multi-sport event seemingly proving far more problematic for the organisers than they really ought to.

A distinct lack of results and updates throughout the Games ultimately led to the official medal table - the single most important piece of information both during and after any multi-sport event - playing catch up from the outset. 

While it may seem a minor issue having to add a few of medals here and there, it’s impossible to get away from the fact that the table is the main source of justification for all podium chasing countries who bring their athletes from far and wide to compete at these events.

Quite simply, if any major Games is to have credibility, rule number one is to get that right. Perhaps the one saving grace for Port Moresby 2015 organisers is that Papua New Guinea comfortably topped the standings, leaving no doubt as to which country had actually come out on top. A closer challenge from any of the other competing nations and I still could have been sat here now writing this blog not knowing for definite which country was number one. 

Papua New Guinea's sporting ambitions extend way beyond Port Moresby 2015
Papua New Guinea's sporting ambitions extend way beyond Port Moresby 2015 ©Port Moresby 2015

Maybe in some respects it’s a telling sign that although Samoa is due to host the upcoming Commonwealth Youth Games, which are scheduled to begin on September 5 and last until September 11, no Pacific island has ever staged - or even bid for - the Commonwealth Games as of yet.

Regardless of whether Papua New Guinea bids for the 2026 Commonwealth Games, the country is clearly giving off all the right messages as it looks to break beyond the Pacific region. 

Branching out to push for inclusion on the Asian Games programme is another admirable and perfectly logical aspiration, not content with competing at the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, along with 16 other Oceania nations.

And if the country can bid for major sporting events with the same fervour it has shown to get to where it is today, who knows what it might lead to?