Michael Pavitt

When the Closing Ceremony wrapped up at the end of the Pacific Games yesterday, the Pacific Games Council (PGC) would have felt their decision to hand over the event to Samoa with just 18 months notice had been justified.

The country's experience of staging events such as the 2007 Pacific Games and the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games made them the clear choice to take over from Tonga as hosts.

Granted, there has been significant help from China, as I explored in my blog last week, but Samoa can make the case it is the dependable country to head to in the Pacific region. 

Operations on the ground have run smoothly and there have only been a few, very minor, hiccups throughout the duration of the Games.

Sitting down with PGC chief executive Andrew Minogue earlier this week, he noted that the Games had continued to show the same traditions as previous editions.

The most obvious was that New Caledonia were top of the medal table, with Papua New Guinea, hosts Samoa, Fiji and Tahiti locked in a tussle to secure second place overall. 

While we might focus too much on the medal table at times, we have noticed the same rivalries between countries that you would expect at any other Continental Games.

Australia have proved something of an interloper in the medal table as they, along with New Zealand, participated for the second time.

Their integration into the event looks to be being carefully managed by the PGC, who acknowledge the sensitivities around introducing the region's clear heavyweight nations.

Their steadily increasing involvement looks set to continue with both having been represented in eight sports here, up from the four at Port Moresby in 2015. It could be as much as 50 per cent of the programme at the Solomon Islands in 2023.

Minogue believes this is partly what has made Samoa 2019 a "transitional Games" and he expects the Solomon Islands to be the same in four years' time.

Australia and New Zealand's involvement at the Pacific Games has steadily increased ©Pacific Games News Service
Australia and New Zealand's involvement at the Pacific Games has steadily increased ©Pacific Games News Service

"I think we will ultimately see a truly continental Games, I think we are heading in that direction," Minogue said. "The Games are in transition, the same traditions and certainties we are all used to are here. The balance of the Games has not really changed.

"Over time that transition will continue. That programme is going to grow, no doubt about it. While you can point to traditions that keep happening you can keep the family together on the same page."

The controlled integration of Australia and New Zealand appears to be working. While their presence has been notable, neither have taken the focus from the other Pacific nations. The larger Pacific island nations have largely been the focus of the medal rush for us, while the smaller ones have had their moments by picking up medals here and there.

Realistically, the cream of Australian and New Zealand athletes will not compete at the Games, unless it acts as an Olympic qualification event. Their top teams are likely to be at other events on the calendar, such as the ongoing Swimming World Championships or the Netball World Cup. Just as Fiji and Samoa's teams have been with the latter.

Largely, this has led to Australia and New Zealand fielding development teams, but these have added a strength in depth that Pacific Island teams and athletes can benefit from. 

It would certainly be better for the top netball teams in the region to be battling with an up-and-coming Australian side instead of winning matches by more than 100 points, which does the winner and loser little good in the long run.

The two heavyweights have been a welcome addition and have strengthened competitions, whether that be in weightlifting where the region is generally strong, or in beach volleyball and rugby sevens, where Australia's women's teams ultimately went down to talented opposition.

The PGC are right to still be gentle with easing Australia and New Zealand in, as the former's 15 gold medal haul in taekwondo showed. There is a delicate balancing act to be had and it would be easy to tip the scales.

The battle for medals at Samoa 2019 has proved fierce ©Pacific Games News Service
The battle for medals at Samoa 2019 has proved fierce ©Pacific Games News Service

The importance of Australia and New Zealand's involvement to increase the prestige and profile of the Games is also clear, as well as the attempts to have a larger number of events acting as Olympic qualifiers.

However, the quirks of the Pacific Games feel just as important to its profile.

How, for instance, have the Northern Mariana Islands ended up with three tennis gold medals when they do not have a tennis court back home? While there is high level competition in certain sports, namely weightlifting, there are also results that make you question whether you have stayed out in the sun too long. Did Samoa really score 246 in a T20 cricket match against New Caledonia?

We have ended up with a Prime Minister, a Lord and the former Mayor of Wellington competing at the Games, representing three different countries. I suspect no other multi-sport Games can compare.

At risk of over-romanticising or being patronising, there is something refreshing about the Games being a mix of strong competition and have-a-go heroes.

However, it would also not be a major Games without a dose of controversy, and it came in the form of Laurel Hubbard's participation and subsequent medal success. It was the key reason for me turning up at the weightlifting on the final day.

The cheer from the crowd when Hubbard failed at a final clean and jerk lift and the response from the 41-year-old, who blew a kiss and waved to the crowd, was arguably the stand-out moment of the Games for me.

It confirmed to me, as did the subsequent comments, emails and worldwide news stories about the Pacific Games competition, that this is an issue that is very much here to stay. 

The topic of transgender athletes is understandably an emotive one, but the charged atmosphere has certainly not aided the debate in recent months.

The International Olympic Committee will certainly have noted the response as the organisation approaches the publication of updated guidelines around transgender athletes. I sense that whatever the guidelines ultimately are, the organisation is in for a relatively fierce backlash.

One thing seems certain. Should Hubbard be in medal winning contention or not come Tokyo 2020, her likely participation will be a big topic come the Games.

Laurel Hubbard's participation and success created headlines ©Getty Images
Laurel Hubbard's participation and success created headlines ©Getty Images

With the Pacific Games having now departed Samoan shores, the PGC will also be looking towards the future.

While the Solomon Islands are hosting the 2023 edition, the race for the 2027 Games will take place over the next year. Fiji, Guam, Tahiti, Vanuatu, American Samoa and Tonga were among those to express an interest to the PGC, but doubts remain about the latter two. 

American Samoa twice were unable to secure Government guarantees for the 2025 Pacific Mini Games, while Tonga withdrew from staging in 2019 amid mixed reports over whether they are actually interested in 2027.

Minogue noted that countries can still enter and pull out of the running at this stage, pointing out the Solomon Islands had not originally expressed an interest in 2023 before ultimately bidding and winning.

The early level of interest has pleased the PGC, with athletes wanting to participate and countries wanting to host a positive indicator for the future of the Games.

With the prospect of several potential bids on the table in a year's time, Minogue admits it is possible the PGC could look towards awarding multiple editions of the Games. However, he highlighted the pitfalls of political changes as a potential drawback to this approach in the region.

"If we do end up with the main Games expressions of interest with three or four really strong bids, it might be something we need to think about," Minogue said.

"We are very mindful and we have seen it with the Tonga experience that some of the Governments in the Pacific change fairly regularly and some can be a bit unstable in their political situation. The idea of awarding a country a Games 11 years in advance, there could potentially be a lot of changes in that time.

"It is something that is probably not right on our agenda at the moment. We will award 2027 next year and see how the unsuccessful ones respond to that."