Bula vinaka and a very good evening to you all.

This is a big year for sport with the upcoming South Pacific Games, so I’m even more pleased than usual to join you for the 2014 Fiji Sports Awards. These awards, of course, celebrate sporting excellence, but also recognise each of you as great ambassadors for Fiji through sport.

Those of you who will be fortunate enough to represent our nation in Port Moresby carry our hopes for victory in whatever event you take part in – and, of course, our hopes to secure the largest number of gold medals. But never forget that you are all ambassadors for Fiji, the bearers and custodians of the Fijian spirit of determination and fair play.

These values are central to our idea of ourselves as a nation. So when you go to the Games, always remember that the eyes of every Pacific Islander are on you. We want you to do us proud – not only in the arena and the pool – but to set an example to the whole region of the highest principles of sportsmanship and personal behaviour.

Within the region, the South Pacific Games has always been an opportunity for Fiji to excel, but also to demonstrate our qualities as a nation and our willingness to lead. The rest of the region looks to us to provide that leadership. So each and every one of you is a standard-bearer for our nation, and we expect you to do us proud.

And at home, here in Fiji, the Games are an opportunity for you to inspire and motivate the Fijian people – to lift the national spirit. And even more so this year because for the first time ever, they will be available on free-to-air channels to the maximum number of Fijians, thanks to our Television (Cross Carriage of Designated Events) Decree 2014.

This means more Fijians than ever before will be able to watch you compete – to be inspired by your exploits and motivated by your achievements. This is wonderful news for the sporting community, but also carries with it a greater responsibility than ever before to act as role models that our young people can look up to.

The Games will also be the last big regional sporting event at which you will stand before our existing flag with the same pride we have always felt whenever it is raised. Our existing flag has served us well in the 45 years since Independence, but now it is time for change.

Not many people in this room have any memory of the colonial era, in which Fiji was a British colony and we honoured and saluted the Union Flag of the United Kingdom.

For every other Fijian, the British symbols have no meaning whatsoever. The colonial era has slipped into history and its symbols have no relevance to the lives of the Fijian people today.

We intend to have a new flag that replaces the existing British symbols with indigenous and genuinely Fijian symbols of our own, and to which we can all relate.

I am asking all sportsmen and women to support this initiative and to embrace the notion of being ambassadors for the new flag.

My Assistant Minister and Fiji’s only Olympic Gold Medalist, Iliesa Delana, inspired us all when he held our existing flag aloft before a vast global audience in winning gold at the London Paralympics. I want you to imagine how much more powerful it would have been – how much more his victory would have resonated with all of us – had that flag carried an indigenous symbol or symbols. Genuinely Fijian, not made up of someone else’s flag – our former coloniser at the opposite end of the earth.

And so, my fellow Fijians, if you are chosen to go to Port Moresby, go with pride under the banner of our existing national flag. Feel that surge of pride if you happen to win and our beloved flag is raised. But also see it as the end of an era and join us on our mission to design and embrace a new flag.

I announced the details of the national competition for the new flag design earlier today. It begins next Monday and is open to all Fijians. I encourage everyone to participate by submitting their own designs, and especially our young people – including all of you athletes gathered here tonight.

After the submission phase, a national panel of citizens to be chaired by the Assistant Minister for Youth and Sports, will form to select the final designs and every Fijian will have a chance to say what their individual preference might be. Parliament will then vote for the final design when it sits in July, with a view to hoisting the new flag on Independence Day, October the 10th, 2015.

I want to remind everyone that the existing flag was chosen by four government ministers in the prelude to Independence. So our own consultative process is going to be much more comprehensive.

I appeal to you all as athletes and administrators to take up the baton of change. Run with it for our young people today. Run with it for the generations to come. Because you are all role models for our young people. You are all mentors. And I want our sports people to be at the forefront of creating our new identity as a nation. Even more proud. Even more independent. And even stronger.

Tonight, we congratulate the elite of sport in Fiji – those who have been nominated by their national sports federations for being symbols of dedication, commitment and achievement.

To the winners: Congratulations. But to all of you I say this: Sporting prowess is something that every Fijian respects. And whether or not you are a winner, it is your participation – to the best of your ability – that commands respect. And if you can inspire even one Fijian child with the example you set of sportsmanship and fair play, you too are a winner and are doing our nation proud.

It’s a great year for sport. Not only the Pacific Games, but the World Netball Championship and the Rugby World Cup in England – to name just a couple.

Do your best for yourselves. Do your best for Fiji. My Government will support you all the way as you bring credit and pride to our nation. And you carry with you the best wishes of every Fijian for success.

Vinaka vakalevu and enjoy the rest of the evening.