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Dancing for a cause: Kiribati’s climate activist Olympic weightlifter

Few casual observers would recall the winner of the men’s 105kg weightlifting category at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Many, though, will remember the athlete with the broad smile who danced his way into a 14th-placed finish.

David Katoatau is an unlikely climate change activist. An affable weightlifter from Kiribati, a collection of atolls spread across an area of the Pacific Ocean the size of India, Katoatau never intended to become a global ambassador for his small country. Yet with rising sea levels posing an existential threat to the i-Kiribati (as inhabitants of Kiribati are known), the Olympian felt compelled to raise awareness.

Dancing has always been part of Katoatau’s lifting routine. He dances when he wins and he dances when he loses. Katoatau first raised eyebrows for his joyous celebrations after winning gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and then burst into the collective imagination with his performances in Rio de Janeiro.

Yet beneath the jubilant dancing is a serious message. Katoatau’s homeland is imperilled by global warming. “I want to see a future for Kiribati and our youth,” he tells Guardian Australia. “I don’t want my country to disappear.”

Travelling to Kiribati is no easy feat. From Australia, it can take almost as long to reach this isolated Pacific country – if connections are not favourable – as flying to Europe. Two flights a week from Nadi, Fiji, constitute the primary link between Kiribati’s capital and most-populated atoll, South Tarawa, and the distant outside world. After several hours of endless turquoise ocean, reef islands suddenly materialise just north of the equator.

A British colony until 1979, 110,000-strong Kiribati has since become synonymous with climate change. Most of Tarawa sits less than two meters above sea level, and the impact of storms has become increasingly severe. Even to the deeply religious i-Kiribati, many of whom refuse to believe that their homeland might one day become uninhabitable, the reality of climate change is now undeniable. According to a World Bank report, by 2100 more than 80% of the land mass of Kiribati’s main atolls could be inundated during tidal surges.

Climate change also exacerbates the innumerable other challenges faced by Kiribati. The island nation is crippled by non-communicable diseases, and missing limbs attributable to diabetes are a common sight. One of the least developed states in the Pacific, Kiribati is dependent on fishing licence revenue and foreign aid. But with rising sea levels threatening its very existence, long-term development funding can be hard to find.

A visit to Katoatau’s family home in Buota, the last atoll in the Tarawa chain connected by road, underlines the immediate threat global warming poses to the residents of Kiribati. Perched on an elevated platform in his tebuia, a traditional dwelling, the weightlifter’s father gazes out towards the high-tide mark just metres away.

“You can see the impact of climate change here with your own eyes,” Katoatau Utimawa says. “Before the sea was further down the beach, now it comes up close to the house. There is water here on both sides, so if the tide becomes much higher there will be no land left at all.”

Indeed, a king tide has already washed away the house Katoatau built after his Glasgow triumph in 2014. “The new house was built next door,” says Utimawa. “When the high tide came, it was washed away. Our son is a weightlifting champion and told the world about the threat of climate change. And then he became a victim of climate change himself.”

Given his childhood inspiration, it is no surprise that Katoatau’s athletic achievements have transcended sport. The 32-year-old grew up in Nauru, where his father worked in the phosphate industry, and was drawn to weightlifting by the success of a local competitor.

“At the time there was a champion in Nauru, Marcus Stephen, who won the country’s first-ever Commonwealth Games gold medal,” Katoatau says. “I wanted to be like him.” Stephen claimed seven golds across three Games, before entering politics and later serving as the president of Nauru.

Katoatau’s family returned to Kiribati, where the budding young weightlifter was confronted by the absence of any suitable facilities in his homeland. Without a training venue, he practiced barefoot on the beach after rising at 6am each morning – the barbell became too hot to touch once the sun started beating down.

At 16, Katoatau began attending international competitions and moved to the Oceania Weightlifting Institute, at the time based in Apia, Samoa, and now located in Noumea, New Caledonia. The enthusiastic athlete soon became a sporting talisman for Kiribati, with Katoatau competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Olympics. It would be in Glasgow, though, where he gained a global reputation.

“We were overjoyed with David’s performance at the 2014 Commonwealth Games,” his father says. “That was the first time Kiribati had ever won a gold medal at a major international event. The whole country was happy.”

It was also in Scotland that Katoatau first became a climate spokesman for Kiribati. As his uncle David Lambourne muses, it was perhaps inevitable that the successful weightlifter would become linked with the threat faced by his homeland.

“As David’s international prominence grew, the foreign media realised that they did not know much about Kiribati, but what they did know was climate change,” says Lambourne, an Australian who moved to Kiribati in the 1990s as a volunteer and went on to spend nearly a decade as the country’s solicitor general. “So in Glasgow he was inevitably asked about climate change, and in the ensuing years he has become deeply engaged in the cause. In some ways, he is an accidental climate activist.”

Katoatau quickly embraced the role, and in 2015 wrote a moving open letter calling attention to the plight of his compatriots. “I beg the countries of the world to see what is happening to Kiribati,” he wrote. “The simple truth is that we do not have the resources to save ourselves.

“We will be the first to go. It will be the extinction of a race. Open your eyes and look to the other low lying level islands around the Pacific – they will soon fall with us. In the not too distant future we will all drown.”

Already popular in his homeland before the Commonwealth Games, Katoatau’s success in Glasgow saw him anointed Kiribati’s “golden boy”. His face was soon on billboards across Tarawa spruiking everything from tea to crackers, and most locals express a deep sense of pride when asked about the weightlifter.

“Kiribati is a very small country and has never really had a prominent athlete before,” Lambourne says. “People here identify strongly with him – he is a great ambassador. They see in David a representation of what they want the rest of the world to see in Kiribati. He is one of the very few i-Kiribati who have made any mark on the world stage.”

Katoatau’s international profile would rise further in August, when he travelled to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics. Despite finishing 14th in his category, the infectious enthusiasm Katoatau demonstrated through his dancing – and the deeper underlying message – captivated a global audience. His routine soon went viral, and major media outlets were effusive in their coverage of this squat i-Kiribati sportsman.

“David has been able to attract the world’s attention to Kiribati,” says the minister for women, youth and social affairs, David Collins, who also has responsibility for sport and heads the Kiribati national Olympic committee. “I have received phone calls and emails from all over the world about David’s dancing at the last Olympics. He truly deserves his position as our golden boy, and we pray that he keeps going. I believe he can make it to the 2018 Commonwealth Games.”

While defending his medal on the Gold Coast may be first on the agenda, Katoatau also harbours longer-term ambitions to coach the next generation of i-Kiribati weightlifters. “I will return to Kiribati,” he says firmly when asked about retirement plans, despite the relative safety of his present home Noumea from the climate change threat. “I already have a coaching diploma, and I can train all the lifters to become like me.”

Weightlifting is booming in Kiribati, due in no small part to Katoatau. Although a lack of resources still hampers the sport, and it trails behind football and volleyball from a participation perspective, Kiribati could soon become a regional weightlifting powerhouse. Given the health problems and poor diet endured by many locals, increased youth participation in sport has considerable societal benefits.

“David’s success has had a very positive impact for the local weightlifting federation,” says Collins. “Just last month he came home to help out in a youth selection program, and participation doubled with kids trying out for a chance to train at the same institute as David.”

Katoatau’s story is inspiring and dispiriting in equal measure. As world leaders squabbled over minor emission reductions at international meetings, this smiling sportsman from an isolated atoll in the Pacific took matters into his own hands. Kiribati is now inextricably associated with rising sea levels in the global consciousness, thanks in part to its dancing weightlifter, and donor-funded adaptation programs are helping to reduce Kiribati’s vulnerability.
“You only need to look at discussions on social media about Kiribati to see David’s impact,” says Lambourne, one of the few expatriates to learn the language and fully integrate into local society. “You had people who had never heard of Kiribati before, and were suddenly aware not only of Kiribati as a nation but also the existential threat it faces. That is a hugely important message.”

Yet it might be too late to save Kiribati. The former government bought 6,000 acres in Fiji in 2014 as part of its “migration with dignity” scheme, while an i-Kiribati man generated headlines last year after unsuccessfully seeking climate change refugee status in New Zealand. Even if predictions of Kiribati’s imminent reclamation by the waves are premature – as some scientists suggest – there is little doubt that coastal erosion, drinking water shortages and increased population density will render Kiribati uninhabitable this century unless drastic action is taken.

Despite his global profile, Katoatau sometimes feels helpless. “I really do not know,” the weightlifter says when asked whether his message is being heard. “I hope the world is listening. I hope someone comes to help my country. We are suffering. But I can only try my best.”

Source: The Guardian