Yato athletes come out on top

Saturday 21 January 2012 | Published in Return to Pukapuka


American Amelia Borofsky spent her formative years in Pukapuka, where her father was stationed as an anthropologist for the University of Hawaii. Amelia lived in Pukapuka until she was five years old. She came back to the islands last year to get a taste of her childhood she left for Pukapuka aboard Kwai late last year and expects to stay there until April or May. She has agreed to share some of her adventures and conversations on Pukapuka with Cook Islands News.

Back in 1979, when our family lived on Pukapuka, sports season took an entire three months. Like other islands in the Cooks and throughout Polynesia, the Makahiki annual Christmas games meant serious play and competition. It was a time for the whole island to come together and for villages to solidify their communal ties.

Now in Pukapuka, the sports season only lasts three weeks.

People have government jobs to return to and more work to do. But for these three weeks, everyone participates in playing and watching these festive games.

Children cannot play marbles, no one can swim or participate in non-sport oriented activities. Every morning at eight, we have a village meeting to plan the sports of the day and every evening, a meeting to review the mistakes of the day. For the last three weeks in Pukapuka, everything has been about the sports.This year the sports included cricket, netball, football, 100-metre relay, cross-country, volleyball, tennis and the traditional sports of polo, toto, puapua, tikapoto and popoko. In 1979, the sports also included coconut husking, vaka racing, swimming and sack jumping. It seemed a real loss to exclude some of these traditional sports.

Still, the dances of ridicule my parents had told me about continue. When the women win the cricket, they dance their way to the victory line shaking their hips and sticking their tongues out at the losing team. This year, Yato did most of the dancing.

This year Yato won with a final score of 126 points. Loto village had 62 points and Ngake village 52 points. It had been over 10 years since Yato village won the sports and no one could remember a time in recent memory when a village had won every single sports category.

Some of the elders blamed the humiliating win on the presence of mobile phones and the young people listening to music instead of the coaches. Others blamed the overreliance on motorbikes rather than two legs to get around. Still others blamed drinking and cigarettes, something banned during sports season but not always followed by the young men.

Yato won because the young people listened and they had heart, says Matapi Teopenga. It was their year.

Yato enjoyed their victory celebrating with a dance and over two hours of newly composed taunting songs making fun of the other two villages. Loto and Ngake village watched and with good humour danced with Yato and offered money for their win.

Where is your mommy? Where is your daddy? Off crying, auwe, auwe, went one of Yatos songs.

Loto village men did win the popoko or wrestling. Being the only island in the Cooks to still practice wrestling, the young men took it seriously. The villages spent a week feeding the young men. The food paid off and quite a few matches ended in a draw.

When a man wins a match, the entire village starts singing a tila or a wrestling chant from their village. The village with the most tila wins. On a few occasions, more than one village sang the tila each claiming that their man had won.

The children watch the adults and learn the sports.

No one teaches sports, says Mima Katoa, everyone just watches and learns.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a group of 10-year-old girls playing their own version of volleyball with a ball made out of palm fronds.

After wrestling finishes, the five year-old boys walk into the sand pit and start wrestling each other. Despite being more reliant on motorbikes, imported foods and office jobs, Pukapukans still have incredible sports talent. Some things have not changed.