VANUATU sent a record number of athletes to the Commonwealth Games, thanks largely to Chinese aid, which has helped to rebuild the Pacific country’s sporting infrastructure and teams after the devastation of category 5 tropical cyclone Pam three years ago.
A revitalised squad of eighteen has now won the country’s first two medals ever at the games after recovering from what was at the time the Pacific’s most powerful recorded cyclone.
This year’s Commonwealth Heads of government (CHOGM) meeting, straight after the games, was due to be held in Vanuatu but was relocated to London due to an estimated $600m of destruction caused by Pam.
Instead, the future head of the Commonwealth, Prince Charles, has visited Vanuatu. The royal received a traditional welcome and chiefly title as he visited Vanuatu last Saturday with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to inspect reconstruction efforts.
His trip was designed to highlight the impact of climate change, especially on small Pacific island nations, which will be a key topic at CHOGM.
“I just hope with him being there and the media attention we get from the visit we will be able to emphasise the message of climate change and its impact on Vanuatu,” said Mike Masauvakalo, Chef De Mission of the Vanuatu team on the Gold Coast.
“The whole purpose of him visiting is to see how well Vanuatu bounced back from the tropical cyclone Pam
“Thank god we’re here, we got through it; I think when you look back, the challenges and all the hard work was worth it.
“This is the biggest delegation to a Commonwealth Games, 18 athletes is the pinnacle of our sports career.
“We’ve never won a medal before and the story has changed and we’ve all trained really hard.
“Having two medals at these games is a dream come true, especially after all we’ve been through.”
Cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in March 2015, leaving a death toll of 16 and large parts of the country in ruins.
“It was very difficult, with 65 per cent of country’s infrastructure destroyed, it had a huge impact,” said Masauvakalo.
Vanuatu hosted the Pacific Mini Games last year after much of their facilities were quickly rebuilt.
“Most of our venues were damaged, especially for table tennis and we don’t have another venue so that really affected our preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics,” said table tennis competitor Anolyn Lulu, who competed at the Olympics and now at her fourth Commonwealth Games.
“After cyclone Pam we were very lucky to have the International Olympic Committee (IOC) help our sport and rebuild, and also for last year because Vanuatu hosted the Pacific Mini Games, we had China helping us build our facilities.
“They rebuilt two indoor stadiums and six tennis courts and four beach volleyball courts and that’s massive, the biggest sporting facility we ever had, and that’s why we have such a big team here.”
Australia gave $50 million in aid over three years for post-Pam reconstruction.
“This underscores a very close partnership between Australia and Vanuatu. We’re both members of the Commonwealth, we’re close friends and partners here in the Pacific, and Australia stands ready to support our friends in times of need,” Ms Bishop said in a press conference in Port Vila.
Ms Bishop with Prince Charles inspected the Port Vila Central Hospital and the chief’s Nakamal traditional meeting place and a new maternity ward has been pledged.
“We are a country of limited resources. The Australian funding to Vanuatu is very important and they have contributed in so many ways,” said Masauvakalo.
“China was one of the largest donors of aid; we also have traditional partners like NZ who stepped in and also France and the EU.
“In terms of reconstruction of sports facilities, China stepped in with the reconstruction.”
One-hundred-and-ninety athletes trained in China and a dozen coaches were sent to Vanuatu.
“Of course our big medal hope was the beach volleyball girls, they’ve been playing so hard,” said Lulu.