Just months out from the Tokyo Games, Dika Toua is lifting weights in sweltering heat underneath her coach’s family’s house in Papua New Guinea.
She and fellow Olympic hopeful, Morea Baru, would normally be preparing at a specialist centre in New Caledonia with their Australian coach, but like most things this year, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted those plans.
“Because of the pandemic, we’ve all left our usual training regimes and we’ve come back home,” Toua explains.
The coronavirus has derailed Olympic preparations across the world, but it’s being especially hard felt in PNG.
Most of PNG’s athletes would normally be training overseas. But travel restrictions have forced many to stay at home without access to the basics they need to prepare.
With Port Moresby’s one facility for high-performance athletes turned into a coronavirus isolation centre and off limits, Toua and Baru were forced to use a makeshift shipping container to train in at first before their coach offered up a family member’s house.
Toua said they are incredibly grateful to his family for providing the site, because the converted shipping container doesn’t have a roof and Papua New Guinea is in its wet season, so when the sun isn’t shining, there’s regular heavy rain.
“The Olympics, it’s a major event and everybody prepares well to go and compete at that level,” said Toua, who will be the first female weightlifter in the world to compete at five Olympics if she qualifies for Tokyo.
“So crossing our fingers that we get back to normality soon.”
PNG asks Australia to allow athletes in to train
While Australia has been supporting the PNG team, providing $250,000 in funding to help athletes keep training, there are fears it won’t be enough to help all the athletes qualify.
Papua New Guinea’s Olympic Committee has now written to the Australian Government asking for its athletes to be allowed into the country to train for the six months before the Tokyo Games.
If they can’t get to Australia, it is feared some will miss out on competing against the world’s best.
“Of course, they’re not Australian citizens and we all understand the difficulties of Australians getting home themselves, so we understand it’s very difficult,” Chef de Mission Tamzin Wardley said.
“But unless we get to international competition, then the Tokyo dream is beginning to fade away.”
Toua said Australia had “helped us in so many ways” and Team PNG would “be honoured” to be allowed to train in the country.
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs said “Australia is a natural sporting partner to Papua New Guinea” and in addition to its grant to PNG’s Olympic Committee, it is “exploring innovative, COVID-safe ways for PNG athletes to access Australian expertise as part of their preparations”.
Shooter Danny Wanma is also hoping to qualify for the Olympic Games.
He normally trains in Brisbane, but after being forced back home due to the pandemic, he hasn’t been able to get access to ammunition.
Instead, for almost a year he’s been “dry firing” — practising the motions without actually shooting.
“Given COVID-19, I just work on what I can control, there’s nothing I can do about it, just accept it,” he said.
Without being able to actually shoot, he has been focusing on mental preparation and fitness as well as playing tennis, to practise focusing on a moving object, so he’s ready for the lead-up events required to qualify.
But he is worried he won’t be able to shoot the score he needs to make it in if he doesn’t get some proper training in.
“… It’s extremely difficult. So that option to travel to Australia would be a godsend.”
Village and family pressures on athletes
On top of lacking facilities, the athletes all face unique problems training back home.
Hanuabada, which sits on Port Moresby’s waterfront, is well known — not only for its distinctive stilt houses that perch over the ocean, but for the sporting prowess of many of its residents, including its weightlifters.
It’s sometimes referred to as Gold Village because of the number of champion athletes it has produced for Papua New Guinea.
But it’s not built to train top competitors preparing for the Olympic Games.
“Being in a village setting, we’ve got so many things that are happening around us,” Toua said.
“When there is a death, we have to stop training, when there is a bride price [ceremony] or family commitment [we have to stop].”
Toua said they “just have to focus and keep training”, while waiting to hear if they can go to Australia.
The financial strain on athletes and their families to train for an additional year has also been hard felt.
Some athletes have already dropped out, but PNG is still hoping between 10 and 20 people will still be able to qualify for the Games.
“It’s the fundamental basis of the Olympic Games, that all countries are there, and everyone gets a chance to compete,” Ms Wardley said.
“We really need to be down there [in Australia] first thing after the new year, to be serious about competing in the lead-up to the Olympics.”
Sailors put their life on hold for the Games
So far only two Papua New Guineans have qualified for Tokyo: Te’Ariki and Rose Numa.
The siblings, who will be competing individually, will be the first sailors to represent Papua New Guinea at the Olympics in almost 30 years. The last person was their dad.
“He’s pretty excited to have two kids qualify,” Rose says, before her brother chips in “two birds with one stone” and they both laugh.
After qualifying at the start of 2020, Te’Ariki quit his job and Rose postponed her final year of university so that they could focus on preparing for the Games.
They had only been training in Brisbane for a week when closing borders forced them back home.
“It was a really big setback for us, not being able to go down in the last 10 months and train and get that experience,” Te’Ariki said.
In Port Moresby they don’t have coaches or competitions so they drag their boats to a local beach to launch into the harbour.
Local children gather around to watch as they rig up and push out into the water.
“Basically no-one else sails, it’s just us,” Rose said.
“So, it’s really hard to get competitions going, to keep us in competition shape.”
She said being able to go to Australia would be “really, really helpful” for their training.
“Coming from an emerging country — emerging as in we’re still learning — getting to the Olympics has been quite an achievement for us, as a country.
“So, it’s quite a challenge, but we’re up for it.”
‘We’re all determined that we’re going to get there’
Ms Wardley says she’s in awe of the young sailors.
“They’re out there egging each other on, but it’s nothing [compared] to being down at a proper race start and proper race event,” she said.
“I take my hat off to them that they’re out there and still going.
“They literally drag their lasers down from where they keep them under the house across a rocky beach to take them out sailing because they’re not even based at a proper yacht club with a ramp.”
Other athletes are facing similar problems of having no-one to train against. A boxing hopeful doesn’t have a quality partner to spar against. And there’s no-one in the league of the country’s premier tennis player, Abigail Tere-Apisah.
“That’s one of the hard things about being a champion in a South Pacific country, is that you do tend to be that level above everyone else, so it’s very hard finding training partners,” Ms Wardley said.
But while their preparations may not be ideal, the athletes who have committed to their Olympic dream are making up for any lack of facilities with pure grit.
“It’s been a big challenge, but we’re all determined that we’re going to get there,” Ms Wardley said.
“Everyone is committed to being there, everyone is committed to doing whatever they have to do to get there.
“Now we just need the chance to do so.”