• Jamal Vira (VASANOC)

Vanuatu hosts its first Mini Pacific Games

In the first decade of participation in the South Pacific Games, the New Hebrides won one gold medal. The 1970s saw just one more gold with three further added to the tally in the first decade of Vanuatu’s Independence in the 1980s. 

A total of five gold medals were won by Vanuatu in the first 27 years of the Games.

Then came the Golden 1990s!

With a huge increase in the number of gold medals to 15 and an equally large increase in the number of medals overall. The staging of the Mini Games in Port Vila (1993) was inspirational to people in all sports. It also provided facilities and increased opportunities for competition.

The first SPG of the 1990’s was held in Port Moresby (1991).  Vanuatu won three gold medals there, courtesy of Athletics.

Following her move to Goroka Teachers’ College, in the Eastern Highlands of PNG, Mary-Estelle Mahuk (Kapalu) came into contact with good coaching and regular high level competition against other very motivated and extremely good PNG women athletes.

Living and competing in such a competitive environment was the beginning of her rise to prominence in Pacific Islands’ Athletics.

A move to Port Moresby saw Mahuk take up the 400m Hurdles event, with immediate success. By the end of the PNG National Championships/SPG Trials, Mary-Estelle was ready for all-comers.

On Day One of the Athletics competition both Mahuk and Baptiste Firiam qualified for their respective 400m Finals. The following day, Baptiste finished in 5th position in his final (48.78s) and Mahuk won gold in a Games Record and Vanuatu National Record time of (55.82s).

A solid start to the Games.

A few day’s later Firiam was the fastest qualifier in the 800m heats. Known more as a 400m runner, he was not really highly fancied. At this stage, many of the 800m runners combined this event with the 1500m and a sprinter was not thought to have enough stamina for the two-lap race.

On the same day, Mary-Estelle Mahuk was the fastest qualifier in the 400m Hurdles (61.16s), setting a new National Record. She was just a few tenths of a second faster than PNG’s Tahiri Homerang, who had defeated her in the PNG National Championships the month before.

Also on the same day Tawai Keiruan won a silver medal in the 5000m creating a new Vanuatu National Record of 15:47.56s.

The following day was another good one for Vanuatu. Mahuk convincingly won the 400m Hurdles in a new PNG All-Comers Record, and new Vanuatu National Record of 60.98s.

Within the hour Vanuatu had yet another gold medal with Baptiste Firiam proving his critics wrong by winning the 800m Final (1:54.8s NR) - thus showing runners with  400m speed could easily prepare for the longer distance.

Adding to the tally with a bronze was Ancel Nalau in 3000m Steeplechase (10:10.47s).

A very good start to the 1990s in Athletics for Vanuatu.

One of Vanuatu’s traditionally popular and strong sports – Boxing – produced two medals in PNG in 1991, in the 67kg Division, A. Malon won the silver medal while in the 48kg Division, the bronze went to K. Malon.

After being considered as a serious prospect to host the 1979 SPG – which eventually went to Suva  -  Port Vila was successful in its bid to host the 1993 Mini Games.

The successful sports were again Athletics and Boxing.

The Vanuatu Boxing team won two gold medals with Vincent Kauo (Featherweight) and Peter Frank (Light Flyweight) enjoying the victories while Jimmy Kalai won a silver in the Lightweight division. Bronze medals also went to Flyweight boxer, Colwyn Mila and Harry Kila in his Welterweight division.

Of interest, the Superheavyweight Division was awarded to Tongan legend Paea Wolfgramm. Three years later, at the Olympic Games in Atlanta (1996), Wolfgramm was again fighting for gold, this time with a broken hand.  He narrowly lost the bout to Vladimir Klitschko (UKR) who later became the professional Heavyweight Champion of the World, retiring in 2017!

Being December, and the middle of the rainy season with stormy conditions for much of the meet, Athletics experienced some of the strongest negative winds in Games history.  It considerably slowed the field and many runners’ times reflected this.

Following her standout performances in Port Moresby, Mary-Estelle Mahuk again dominated the field with her gold medal performances. In the 400m, she established not only a Games Record and a National Record, but ran the fastest time ever by a Pacific Islands woman – 54.25s. In the 400m Hurdles she won with a time of 60.99s.

Baptiste Firiam also enjoyed a good meet at these Games. He finished third in the 400m Final (47.87s) and second in the 800m (1:59.10s).

Tawai Keiruan, coached by Mary-Estelle Mahuk (Kapalu), stepped-up now to be one of the most respected middle and long distance runners in the Pacific. He won the 1500m in the Games Record time of 3:58.28s and then picked-up the silver in the 3000m Steeplechase. In the 1500m Keiruan defeated the defending champion Davendara Prakash  Singh(FIJ).

The Vanuatu quartet then impressed further by winning the bronze medal in the Men’s 4x400m Relay with a time of 3:17.70s.

For the first Games on home soil, Vanuatu won five gold medals, three silver and four bronze.

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