Cook Island Games reboot billed as chance to develop local athletes

Netball Cook Islands Black Pearls win gold at the 2019 Samoa Pacific Games. Photo: Facebook / Cook Islands Sports

The Cook Islands Sports and National Olympic Committee (CISNOC) are hoping a reboot of the Cook Island Games will help boost domestic athletes in the country.

The small island nation has a team of five set to represent the Cooks in the delayed Tokyo Olympics next year, but all of them are based overseas.

CISNOC Secretary General, Owen Lewis, said the restrictions on international travel due to Covid-19 have revealed they need to focus more on developing their athletes on home soil.

“In some ways, Covid-19 has been a chance for us to reset and think ‘hey, we’ve got to look at our domestic competitions, we’ve got to start looking at how we’re going to develop the next Jane [Cook Islands Sportswoman of the Year] here,” Owen Lewis said.

“We can’t always be relying on the New Zealand Cook Islanders or Australian based Cook Islanders, we’ve actually got to develop our own,” he said.

While all non-contact sports have resumed in the Cook Islands, following an easing of coronavirus restrictions, CISNOC has met with national sporting federations to discuss the impact of the pandemic and what it means for teams and athletes who had scheduled tournaments overseas.

“We’ve had several meetings with our federations to say, ‘you’re not going to be travelling very far in the next 12 months, what are you going to do?’ ”

” ‘Because your World Champs, your Oceania Champs are coming up and you need to start looking onshore’,” he said.

Mr Lewis said they are working with the government to try re-establishing what’s called the Cook Island Games, that will be involving all domestic athletes from all islands. He said it is an opportunity for all the federations to bring all their national championships into one competition.

“Although we’re not going to get too much international flavour coming in or going out, it’s a positive thing to be able to look inwards and develop our own.”

International coaching assistance still needed

Lewis believes the return of the Cook Island Games could be a real game-changer and said federations needed to start planning now.

But he conceded that some international involvement would be needed to help develop local talent.

“That’s where it’s hard. A Cook Islander athlete based in New Zealand or Australia will get a lot of competition,” he said.

“There is a limitation in that our population and our size, we can’t play enough games or get enough competition for our athletes and of course we don’t have all the coaching and technical assistance that New Zealand and Australia offer.”

Lewis believes having a Pacific ‘travel bubble’ between the Cook Islands, New Zealand and Australia would help the success of their campaign, including a new national certification process built to develop local coaches.

“We’re going to be putting a lot of effort into coaching development and that’s in conjunction with the national federations, but we will need to recruit people from outside to actually help us deliver the training,” he said.

“That’s going to be a limitation with Covid-19 because normally our coaches would go to Australia or New Zealand for a workshop but we’re going to have to do that in-house as well…we’re seeing it as a positive opposed to a negative…but we need that Pacific bubble.”

Cook Islands not a fall-back

CISNOC may be looking at uplifting their local competitors, but Lewis said it doesn’t take away from the support and pride they have for their athletes around the world.

“That’s what we want from our New Zealand and Australia based athletes. It’s lovely when they actually put their hand up and say, ‘I want to represent where I’m from’ and that’s what we’re hoping for.”

“We can’t offer the same opportunities as you can if you go through the New Zealand system, but we definitely want our people to represent their country of heritage, it’s something that we hold highly with pride.”

But while the committee was seeing more athletes choosing to represent the island, Lewis said they don’t want them using the country as a “fall-back option.”

“What we don’t want is, we don’t want people to fail to get into a New Zealand team and then us be the fall-back option, that’s not the ideal,” Mr Lewis said.

Owen Lewis said they want people to represent the Cook Islands because they are proud of their heritage.

“We’re seeing that in the Tongan rugby league team, and I think that’s the most high-profile [example] of it and we’re seeing it more in our rugby league athletes after qualifying for the Rugby League World Cup next year,” Mr Lewis said.

“We’ve got a number of NRL players now saying ‘look, I want to play for the Cook Islands,’ and that’s a real positive thing so we want to see it, we just don’t want to be the fall-back option.”


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