Michael Pavitt

It is fair to say that the main purpose of the Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC) and Pacific Games Council (PGC) holding their General Assemblies in Samoa was to provide a flavour of next year's edition of the continental event.

Awarded to Samoa only in December, following the withdrawal of Tonga as hosts last year, the most commonly uttered two words surrounding the Games has been "time constraints".

With Samoa's Minister of Sport, Loau Keneti Sio, installed as Organising Committee President and Malo Hele Matatia in place as chief executive, the PGC appear to be able to count on two things: Government support and a direction for the Games.

When Samoa's recent experience of hosting the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2015 and the Pacific Games as recently as 2007 is taken into account, confidence has been expressed that the 2019 Games - which appeared in doubt at one stage - will now take place successfully.

"We have got faith and confidence in the Samoans when it comes to delivering Games," said Vidhya Lakhan, the PGC President, this week. "You have the expertise, you have the facilities and if there was anyone in the Pacific we believe could host these Games at short notice, it is Samoa."

The Pacific Games Associations have had the opportunity to have a taster of the Games, visiting venues and enjoying the Samoan hospitality throughout the duration of the week.

Games, whether continental or Olympic, clearly remain the main focus of the delegates present at both General Assemblies.

Boosting the performance of athletes in the region has been a running theme, with part of ONOC's strategic plan targeting the provision of training and development for athletes, coaches and administrators. This is viewed as central to the ambition of achieving sporting excellence in the region.

I remember speaking to ONOC President Robin Mitchell last year, when the softly spoken but well respected Fijian reflected on the Olympic gold medal achieved by the country's men's rugby sevens team as the result of around 30 years of work. The inference was that success in other sports could potentially take a similar amount of time to come to fruition on the grandest of stages.

The build-up to the Samoa 2019 Pacific Games was a key focus of the week of meetings ©ITG
The build-up to the Samoa 2019 Pacific Games was a key focus of the week of meetings ©ITG

As such, both ONOC and the PGC are making efforts to slowly but surely raise standards across sports. For instance, the PGC are targeting Australian and New Zealand athletes who could potentially provide competition that inspires Pacific Island sprinters to greater heights. Their participation at the Pacific Games under these conditions seems an eminently sensible idea.

A different but complimentary approach comes from ONOC's attempts to boost the standard of coaching, with much having been made this week of the Oceania Sport Education Programme, along with Olympic Solidarity-funded projects.

It will be interesting to see whether these efforts will ultimately pay dividends in the future.

Frankly, though, it would be doing a disservice to ONOC if my blog was to centre on athletes' performances and Games. Because their week of meetings and workshops did not focus entirely on them either.

I must admit, it was quite refreshing to have other topics to listen to and consider, rather than the "Games, Games, Games" focus of other similar meetings I have attended.

Part of this was due to Olympic Solidarity, who contributed to three days of workshops that covered several important topics and proved interactive for the delegates involved.

The workshop format had several benefits.

Firstly, it allowed ONOC to put their newly formed strategic plan into some form of practice, putting actions towards the words written on the paper. This at least gave the impression that the plan will actually be followed, whereas some plans you imagine to be a rubber-stamp exercise with the document ignored from the minute it has been approved.

The workshops also allowed sessions to be carried out based on reports submitted to the General Assembly on a variety of commissions.

Climate change was one of several challenging topics explored by NOCs ©ITG
Climate change was one of several challenging topics explored by NOCs ©ITG

This had the added bonus of ensuring there was a short four hour General Assembly, rather than the often mind-numbing ones when a report is read word for word on a stage, leaving delegates desperate for a coffee break to ensure they remain awake…

It is to ONOC and the International Olympic Committee's credit that the longest workshop of the week was focused on the latter's toolkit for NOCs and International Federations, for the prevention of abuse and harassment in sports.

The three hour session saw delegates handed a series of case studies, with the officials tasked with coming up with a strategy on how they would respond to each individual case. There were also discussions about why abuse could occur in sport and examinations of how NOCs could put policies and procedures into place to ensure they would be able to deal with issues effectively.

Given some of the awful stories which have emerged in recent months in sport, particularly in the United States, it was good to see how much importance was being placed on raising awareness and trying to find mechanisms to address potential issues.

A lengthy session on gender equality followed, led by ONOC's Women in Sport Commission President Helen Brownlee. She highlighted how the organisation have taken steps to introduce more men to the Commission so they can act as "champions of change" to boost the number of women in sporting roles.

ONOC have been viewed as the best performing continental association for gender equality, highlighted by them being the first organisation to vote for a female vice-president, when Palau National Olympic Committee secretary general Baklai Temengil earned the role last year.

Despite NOCs having shown growth in the number of women on their boards in the past four-years, Brownlee gave a breakdown which showed that more work needs to be done.

Five countries had 20 per cent female board members, with two having 30 per cent. A further four had around 40 per cent. Only four boasted half or more, with Palau the only NOC to have a greater number of women than men.

In total only 18 per cent of delegates present - NOC Presidents and secretary generals - were women.

Specific shirts for ONOC and the PGC were worn, highlighting the unity among members ©ITG
Specific shirts for ONOC and the PGC were worn, highlighting the unity among members ©ITG

It showed that there is still work to be done on this front, but it was positive that Brownlee and the majority of NOCs were looking to find ways to ensure "skilled women" take up positions in the coming years.

If I may, might it not be a good idea to set a target for NOCs to achieve a 50/50 spilt? For instance, could NOCs not be given structured targets to grow the number of women, with Olympic Solidarity funding acting as an incentive for each one in the coming years? Could this potentially encourage them to actively search and invest in training programmes going forward, leading to gender parity in say four or five years?

One wonders whether the IOC could also benefit from setting long-term targets to achieve a gender split, similar to the ones they effectively set sports.

It was also fascinating to witness an hour long discussion on climate change, which touched upon the Paris Accord and highlighted the ongoing battle against plastic.

The discussion really showed how the region is impacted by the changing climate. After all, ONOC admitted the build-up to the meetings in Samoa was somewhat disrupted when the island was hit by a series of storms early this year, which caused major flooding.

The approval of Kiribati's first-ever Commonwealth Games gold medallist David Katoatau as an ambassador for climate change also drummed home the cause, given that his country is under serious threat from rising sea levels.

Calls to halt the use of plastic bottles at the Samoa 2019 Pacific Games were made, while later the Solomon Islands stated their edition of the event in 2023 had the vision of "Green Games". There was even a claim that the Pacific Games would show the rest of the world how to hold environmentally friendly events, asserting that the region would set a standard for all to follow.

This was one of several areas where the unity of the Pacific nations was highlighted, with the clear indication that their work as a collective group makes the region stronger and more impactful.

The fact all delegates at ONOC and PGC General Assemblies wore the same shirt reinforced this idea, with something of a team photo taking place at both.

ONOC have set themselves lofty goals in their strategic plan to become "the best performing continental association" and although they are lacking in certain areas, other bodies could learn some lessons.

Along with the willingness to discuss tough topics outside of sporting competition and producing more interactive sessions, the often light hearted and good natured atmosphere present would be good to replicate elsewhere.