Papua New Guinea challenged the eligibility of Bede Aitu, Kirsten Fisher-Marsters, Malcolm Richardson and Noah Vilisoni-Heather to represent the Cooks.
Cook Islands swimming team manager Romani Katoa reacted angrily: “It’s sad because compared to the other countries competing here, we’re the little guys,” he said.
The ban was handed down by the Pacific Games Disputes Tribunal, which ruled the four did not satisfy the residency eligibility criteria for the Games. Any athletes competing at the Games must have been a resident in the country they wish to represent for a minimum of five years, over the course of their life.
“The thing is, many of the athletes competing here would fail to meet this criterion,” said Katoa. “We’re being picked on because those athletes would have had a good chance of winning medals.”
All four swimmers grew up in New Zealand. Malcolm Richardson, a medical student, competed last year in the black and white, for New Zealand.
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Following the ban, the Cook Islands now has only two athletes competing in swimming events at the Games: Wesley Roberts and Temaruata Strickland.
“The Games also act as part of the qualification process for the 2020 Olympic Games, so some of our top swimmers have missed out on that opportunity,” said Katoa.
Katoa was hoping to meet with representatives from Oceania’s Swimming Association on Monday, but said they “politely declined” the meeting.
Section 9.6 of the Pacific Games Swimming Sports Technical Manual states that “in the event of a challenge to a competitor’s eligibility, the Executive Board shall immediately refer the challenge to the Disputes Tribunal … The Tribunal’s decision shall be final. No further challenges shall be considered thereafter.”
For all the drama surrounding them, the swimming team has so far performed well with Roberts setting a new national record in the men’s 50m butterfly event.