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Indigenous presence welcomes a clash of cultures for the 2023 Pacific Games

Andrew Mathieson -

A number of Australian representatives chose to walk into the opening ceremony of the 2023 Pacific Games on Sunday evening proudly waving small Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander flags in front of a packed National Stadium in Solomon Islands.

While the country's national flag remained a fixture with most of the team, many of their peers including non-Indigenous members of the travelling contingent consciously carried Australia's other two official Indigenous flags for the occasion that for the most part was more about celebrating cultures.

Australia, one of two associate members along with New Zealand, has sent its largest team of 75 competitors across eight sports to Honiara against the 2360 others from 21 full member nations that are participating in the 17th edition of the multi-sport event.

Aboriginal gold medal chances at Australia's third-ever Pacific Games include sprinter Caleb Law, and boxers Callum Peters and Marissa Williamson Pohlman, but like most in the team their aim at this year's Games is to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

A number of other leading Indigenous Australian sports stars, boxer Alex Winwood, weightlifter Brandon Wakeling and beach volleyballer Taliqua Clancy, are not attending after some strong results at last year's Commonwealth Games.

While the most populous country and the region's leader in sporting prowess entered the 10,000-capacity venue low key, several small island states and territories stole the show in a series of Melanesian and Polynesian traditional and cultural acts.

Tahiti delighted the host nation's crowd watching their first Pacific Games ceremony, upstaging New Zealand with its own unique Marquesian haka down on one knee.

Spectators also got behind delegates from Kiribati – the exposed Pacific island nation at most risk to rising sea levels from climate change – after its ceremonial and rhythmic group dance received a rapturous applause.

New Caledonia's ritualistic performance was carried out by a mix of its Indigenous Kanak Melanesians, who make up 40 per cent of the country's population, with both Caldoche French descendants and Metropolitan French expatriates that account for a further 25 per cent.

Both Fiji and Papua New Guinea attended in large number with more than 1000 athletes collectively.

The Fijians performed their popular Cibi war dance but were challenged by PNG's own tribal chanting on their way to the field's performing platform.

Solomon Islands was certainly not to be outdone after coming out last to a huge reception, with their female competitors leading the way into the stadium with their own version of a Melanesian dance.

Earlier, Tonga, had a handful of male athletes following the lead of 2016 Rio Olympics flagbearer Pita Taufatofua by arriving with bare-oiled chests and wearing traditional ta'ovalas wrapped around their waists.

Taufatofua, incidentally, who was Tonga's sole competitor at 2018 winter Olympics, is one of the coaches for its taekwondo team amazingly five years since cross-country skiing in South Korea.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, opened 2023 Games, delivering somewhat of an emotional speech in what was arguably the country's biggest moment in the spotlight.

"It is now our honour to hand the Games over to the athletes of the Pacific," he said.

"Challenge yourselves. Celebrate our Pacific diversity. And unite our region.

"May God bless and protect you as you participate in the 2023 Pacific Games. All glory be to God."

Sogavare's words to "unite our region" could be seen as provocative by Pacific neighbours considering the cosy relationship the Solomon Islands now have with China.

The Chinese government paid for the new stadium central to the awarding of the 60th anniversary of the former South Pacific Games – by in the end a 12-10 vote over Tahiti – amid a switch of political alliances towards a communist presence in the region.

The National Stadium cost $70 million as part of China's $120 million construction for all Games facilities in the Solomon Islands, while Australia chipped in with a further $17 million towards costs.

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