HON PM BAINIMARAMA ADDRESS AT OPENING SESSION OF THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION SEMINAR ON SPORT DIPLOMACY

Mr Chair/ Madam Chair
My fellow panelists,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.

If there is any country in the world that exemplifies the importance of sport diplomacy, Fiji is it. So I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to take part in this seminar and to tell you the Fijian story.

It is the story of how a small nation of less than a million people living on a string of islands in the South Pacific have been able to use their sporting prowess for a much wider purpose – to propel Fiji into the ranks of the great sporting nations and boost our image in the world.

We don’t have the economic strength of the great powers. We don’t have their military strength and the ability to project raw power. But of all the nations in the world, I am convinced that we do more than all of them – proportional to our size and population – to project soft power on the sporting field.

Fiji truly punches above its weight in the world of sport. And we have been able to use the natural skills of our people to capture the imaginations of sporting lovers the world over. And establish Fiji as a force to be reckoned with, not only on the sporting field but as a nation.

We have harnessed our sporting prowess and made it a vital component of our projection of soft power, of sport as an instrument of diplomacy. And it has done a great deal to enhance our engagement with the rest of the world. And enhance the way the rest of the world sees Fiji and the Fijian people.

After more than three decades in which we were finding our way as a nation, we are now a people who are united and determined to make our mark in the world. We are doing this with a deliberate policy of engagement.

• We are leading the fight against climate change as the incoming President of COP-23 and the fight to maintain the health of our oceans and seas with our cohosting of the UN oceans Summit in June.

• We are providing a disproportionate contribution to United Nations Peacekeeping efforts to keep vulnerable people safe in troubled parts of the world.

• We are sending civilian volunteers to help build capacity in our Pacific neighbours.

• We are taking our Fijian-Made brand of quality goods and services to the four corners of the earth.

• And we are sending our sportsmen and women out into the world, not only to represent Fiji, but to bolster the ability of sporting teams in various codes throughout the world. Fijians helping other teams, other nations, to be winners. And in the process, enhancing the reputation of our nation – sport as a crucial tool of diplomacy.

Ladies and Gentlemen, never before has Fiji stood so tall in the world of sport. When our national Rugby Sevens team won Gold at the Rio Olympics in August, there was an eruption of joy across our islands. Sixty years after we first went to the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956, we had won not only Fiji’s first medal altogether at a summer Olympics, but the first gold medal for any Pacific nation.

But something equally important happened. Across the world, there was an eruption of joy on the part of tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of sports lovers, some of whom knew little or nothing about Fiji.

Everyone in this room knows the power of the victory of the underdog in sport, the fairytale narrative of a David beating Goliath. And what those viewers throughout the world saw on their screens from Rio was a fairytale story come true. Big men with big hearts from small villages and towns in the Pacific beating the team from one of the most powerful sporting nations on earth – Great Britain. It was a magical moment that no Fijian who witnessed it will ever forget.

And consider this. The cost of a single British gold medal – the investment required to win – was estimated to be 4-million pounds or 10 million Fijian dollars. Our gold came with a total investment of 5.5-million Fijian dollars across all sports. Watch out world if we ever get to put the same money into developing our sportsmen and women as the big guys spend.

The net benefit for Fiji from our Olympic Gold in Rio simply can’t be quantified but it is naturally immense. It is a wife saying to her husband “let’s take a holiday in Fiji”. It is someone in a supermarket or shop somewhere in the world saying “oh, this is from Fiji, let’s try it”. And in terms of sport diplomacy, it is a club board or a coach saying “let’s to do a tour of Fiji”. Or “let’s try and sign up one of those Fijians to play for us”.

And when that happens, we can usually rely on the Fijian magic to do the rest. Because we are not only good at sport, we are loyal, hardworking and carry within ourselves the Fijian spirit. Of hospitality to strangers. Of caring for others. And each interaction between individuals or teams creates yet another opportunity for Fiji to shine in the world. Sport as a potent vehicle for diplomacy.

Our rugby players have fanned out across the globe to play for other teams – in France, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Japan and Hong Kong. We even have a Fijian rugby coach in China. And it isn’t only rugby. We have several Fijians playing basketball in the United States and one of our prominent soccer or football players, Roy Krishna, playing in New Zealand.

Talk to any rugby fan in Australia or New Zealand and they’ll tell you how important Fijians have been in the success of their own teams. So these players are also diplomats for Fiji – enhancing our national standing and reputation while they benefit themselves and their families with handsome contracts most Fijians only dream about. The remittances alone from these players are an important part of our economy.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the potential to enhance the importance of sport in the conduct of international affairs has always been there, such as the ping pong diplomacy that marked the thawing of relations between the US and China in the early 1970s.

But there are a great number of other opportunities to be explored, especially in funding the development of sport at the grass roots level in developing countries as a means of raising overall living standards.

In many parts of Fiji, we have communities in which sporting facilities consist of an uneven field, two goalposts and a ball. My Government is making it a priority to upgrade sporting facilities, especially in rural communities, whether it is the provision of gym equipment or building a basketball court. And can I suggest to you all that assisting us to do this is a valuable development tool in itself. Because it not only encourages more community participation in sport but has valuable spin-offs in raising community health standards and in the education of our children.

Many of the millions of people around the world who have witnessed our sporting prowess may not realise a startling paradox. That while our sporting stars are incredibly fit, Fiji has one of the highest rates of Non-Communicable Diseases in the world. Indeed NCDs such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease – all of them preventable – claim more of our people than any other cause.

Helping us to invest in sport at the grassroots level is part of a holistic response to this challenge. More encouragement for people to exercise, participate in sporting activity and adopt healthier eating habits as a core element of national development. And I appeal to you all to return to your governments with this message: that investing in sport in developing countries like Fiji can not only be an important diplomatic tool but a highly effective way to make a real difference to the health and wellbeing of ordinary people.

Mr Chair/Madam Chair, thank you for the opportunity to take part in this seminar on a subject that is very important to Fiji and to me personally. Many of us are not just spectators in Fiji but active participants. And at the age of 63, I am still getting out when I can and playing touch football with my teammates. It is something that I love doing and will continue to do as long as the big man in the sky keeps me upright. It’s the Fijian way and always will be.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.