For weeks now the local media have been gradually building-up to the annual Coca Cola Games, the Fiji Secondary Schools Athletics Championships. There have been stories about possible upsets, how the favoured schools had done in the Zone Meets and the form of the stars who had performed so well in last year's South Pacific Games in Apia, Samoa. Much of the publicity surrounded 100m silver medallist, Iowane Dovumatua, and the 5000m gold medallist, Akesa Drotini. Both have changed schools since last year.
These two stars will not have it all their own way in their favourite events. There are many very credible challengers to both Akesa and Iowane, and upsets are possible. It all adds much to the overall excitement that this meet produces.
In the months ahead expect the issue of athletes' eligibility to raise its head. In an effort to give their team the winning edge, some schools have "recruited" others to participate for them. This is evidently not against the rules as they stand at present, but surely it is against the spirit and ethics of inter-schools' competition. Expect to hear more on this issue.
However as an outsider the fierce competition for supremacy on the medal table is of little interest to me, apart from a lingering loyalty to two teams that I helped prepare for competition in the 1970's (Niusawa and Lelean). What I hope to see are outstanding performances by the stars of the future. You can count on there being many special times, heights and distances over the two days of competition.
Make no bones about it, the Coca Cola Games is huge in Fiji. It is the largest sporting event of its kind in the Pacific Islands each year. In the 2008 edition over 2700 athletes will be competing over the two days of competition. In a first for the meet it will be televised live to Fiji and twelve other countries in the region.
The last of the Zone Meets - Maritime - was held only two days before the main competition began.
In the weeks up to the finals there was a trouble-free torch relay that toured the country. Who will be chosen to light the flame in the stadium at the commencement of the Games?
There is a proposal to expand the meet to three days in the future. This will help to improve the overall standard. It will give the athletes a greater recovery time and ensure that they produce better performances. At the end of a "pressure cooker" one or two day meet, there are many injured and exhausted athletes turning-up for the vital relays. With an extra day's competition this will partly alleviate that situation.
The rivalry is intense with the well-represented schools - especially those near Suva - turning out in large numbers. Cheer squads had been exhorted to behave well. Also a call has gone out to stop the stamping and jumping in the 30-year-old stadium grandstand to ensure its structural integrity. This is a genuine concern for all who have knowledge of the situation.
No matter what the weather, it is always standing room only, either huddling under umbrellas or basking in the hot Suva sunshine. Rainy days have outnumbered fine days over the years, but it does not dampen the enthusiasm of the very vocal supporters. Many have commented on the high price of admission, but that is not likely to keep numbers down.
There were worries that the track, resurfaced for the 2003 SPG, was showing a lot of wear and could be dangerous, but these fears were soon laid to rest. It is a problem, though, that right around the Pacific not enough money is put aside for the maintenance of such important sporting facilities.
The reward for a good performance in the Games, apart from being a school hero, is a place on the Fiji Team to travel to Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands for the 2008 Grand Prix and Oceania U18 and Senior Championships. Once that team is selected it will be up to the coaches to maintain interest, fitness and good form through to June. This is not an easy task without the full support of the schools. The Oceania Championships are, for many, a stepping-stone to Pacific Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships and Olympic Games participation.
Let the Games begin!
Thanks to Mr Bob Snow for providing previews and daily highlights during the 2008 Coca Cola Light Games