David Katoatau waved his arms. He spun. He danced. Oh, my, did he ever dance at the Rio Olympics on Monday.
Katoatau wasn’t celebrating his sixth-place finish in the 105kg weightlifting competition, though. His joyful moves (watch all of them here) carried a serious message about the survival of Kiribati, his Pacific island homeland nation. Rising seas from climate change threaten the roughly 102,000 inhabitants of the 33 coral atolls that lie about 2,400 miles south of Hawaii.
“Most people don’t know where Kiribati is,” Katoatau, 32, told Reuters. “I want people to know more about us, so I use weightlifting, and my dancing, to show the world. I wrote an open letter to the world last year to tell people about all the homes lost to rising sea levels. I don’t know how many years it will be before it sinks.”
A 2014 story in the Guardian reported that families, most of whom live on South Tarawa, may live 20 to a home in “cobbled-together dwellings amid coconut palms, pigs and piles of rubbish. There is no space nor privacy. The many who lack a toilet use the white sand beach. Children spend their days swimming in the electric blue lagoon, which doubles as a major fishing ground and open sewer.” Karl Mathiesen reported:
The island’s drinking water is in perpetual crisis. Groundwater wells are polluted and increasingly salinated by rising seawater. Treated government water reaches some communities, but only runs for a few hours each week.
Batiri Tataio’s family are fortunate enough to have a tin roof and tank for harvesting rainwater. But the nation is slipping into drought – it has rained just twice in the past two months.
“If there’s no rain, no water. That means the babies have to drink the well water and we have to boil it and boil it,” she says. In September an outbreak of diarrhoea killed more than 20 children in just two weeks. Children here are nine times more likely to die before their first birthday than in the UK.
Kiribati became well known as the site of battles during World War II and gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1979. Getting from there to the Olympics was a difficult accomplishment for the three athletes it sent to the Rio Games. “There was no gym when I started training as a boy, and there is no gym now,” Katoatau said. “I trained on the beach in the open sun. The bar [on the weights] would become too hot to touch so I had to train at 6 in the morning.”
Katoatau moved to the Oceania Weightlifting Institute in New Caledonia, where he trains, when he was 16, but his home is a constant concern. With a state reward for winning gold at the Commonwealth Games, he built a home for his family, only to see it lost to a cyclone. His family rebuilt, but, he said, “it’s close to the sea so there is always a worry.”
And that is why Katoatau dances.
“I beg the countries of the world to see what is happening to Kiribati,” he wrote in his open letter last fall. “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.”