Griffith backs progress for para-athletes in the Pacific with first visit to Palau

Dr Caroline Riot joined a variety of stakeholders in Palau to optimise opportunities for para-athletes.

Griffith University’s Director of Games Engagement and Partnerships, Dr Caroline Riot, has recently returned from a trip to “pristine” Palau in the western Pacific, having been invited to support the program delivery of a Paralympic committee.

The visit included presentations from Griffith and the Oceania Paralympic Committee’s Paul Bird (President) and Chris Nunn (High Performance Coach).

The highly positive engagement with Palau shows Griffith’s commitment to delivering on inclusion, diversity, equity and sporting excellence within the Pacific region.

Dr Riot said the program was primarily designed around building Palau’s first National Paralympic Committee but involved a multitude of complementing initiatives.

“We went over to advise the process in setting up the committee, but then also to host talent identification, coach training and development opportunities and help design a research agenda around legacy planning and delivery up until Brisbane 2032,” she said.

As a strong sporting nation, Dr Riot said Palauan para-athletes deserve the chance to go to the Games based on merit and meeting qualifying standards.

“Palau has had involvement in the Special Olympics with a competition now in Germany, but they’ve never sent anybody to a Paralympic Games,” she said.

“Once Palau has established its National Paralympic Committee, it can send an athlete to Paris next year, the goal being that athletes represent their country based on merit, not just as a representative.”

Griffith University, Titans NRL club and a Brisbane-based running club donated essential goods for athletes.

Athletes who are considered best in the country but that do not meet performance criteria for the specific sport are often referred to as ‘wild cards.’

“Olympic and Paralympic Games organising committees want representation and they’ll take the country’s best athletes, but the best athlete might not meet qualifying standards,” Dr Riot said.

“We want to move away from that and develop a system across these regional nations that helps build their sporting capabilities and capacities so that performance over time will demonstrate that athletes are getting better, coaches are getting better, and athletes are able to then compete based on merit.

“We want to ensure they actually meet qualifying standards because they’ve got the systems behind them to support them, so they’re not wild cards, they’re not just given a free ticket to attend, but they know they have high quality performances and deserve to be there.”

Palauan community preparing for the evening marathon.

Dr Riot said Palau’s passion for sports is palpable: “You just see sport everywhere, running and swimming too.”

Palau’s “pristine” land and waterways makes outdoor activities popular amongst the community.

“They had a fun run, which we ran at five o’clock in the morning because it was so hot.

“Then they had their first internationally recognised marathon event, sponsored by a Taiwanese group, which started at 5pm and went until about 10pm.

“They’re committed and they’re running at night-time because of the weather, and the infrastructure is fantastic.”

For many of the country’s athletes including those headed to Germany for the Special Olympics, important items such as running shoes were sparse.

Dr Riot collated donated goods from Griffith, as well as the Titans NRL team and a local running group in Brisbane’s Western suburbs headed by coach Liz Moore, to supply athletes with shoes to take to Germany.

Other items including jackets and water bottles were distributed amongst the community college and high school.

Koko receiving her own pair of shoes (donated by Lizel Moore’s running club in Brisbane) just in time for the Special Olympics in Germany

Local senior student Koko, who lives with cerebral palsy, was just one of the many young athletes inspired by the presentations from Griffith and the Oceania Paralympic Committee’s Paul Bird (President) and Chris Nunn (High Performance Coach), with hopes to now study at Griffith one day and qualify for Paris next year.

“Koko spoke to me about her disability, and how she’s grown through sport,” Dr Riot said.

“She started in volleyball, then moved into table tennis and proved to be a really good table tennis player.

“But we’ve now talent identified her for track and field, so we think that’s where she’ll be able to compete.”

Koko will attend an athletics competition in the Solomon Islands where Griffith will run its upcoming GAPS camps come October.

Following this, Koko hopes to be ‘classified’, which involves determining a person’s disability and competition category in line with International Paralympic Committee standards, in November at the Pacific Games.

“We’re also working with all of the national sports federations to identify coaches and they are so receptive,” Dr Riot said.

“They really want to do this; they don’t see parasport or disability sport as a challenge.

“They see it as something we should absolutely be doing.”

From her work with the Palauan National Olympic Committee, Dr Riot hopes to develop a monitoring and evaluation framework to assess the impact of the program moving forward.

Check out some of Dr Caroline Riot’s Palau trip here: