The Real Tahiti Olympics Celebrate Polynesian Culture

by Pelican Press
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Drenched in sweat, lungs heaving, Christopher Ravatua looked like any other athlete in the wake of a hard-fought win. But the remains of the contest — the flesh and shells of several hundred freshly husked coconuts, the sugary scent of their juice — reflected, in fact, the singularity of the scene.

Ravatua, 36, from the French Polynesian island of Rimatara, had just taken first place in a coconut-opening competition last month in Papeete, Tahiti. The event was part of the Heiva i Tahiti, an annual festival on the island that features competitions in traditional Polynesian dance and games and now draws hundreds of contestants from around the region.

Next year, Tahiti will host an event with a far larger global profile, the surfing competition of the 2024 Paris Olympics, in an arrangement that has produced conflicting emotions on the island. There is pride and excitement, Tahitians say, about the money to be made; about capturing the world’s attention, however briefly, during its largest sporting event. But there is trepidation, too, because of concerns about overexposure and overdevelopment, as well as some long-held, complicated feelings about France’s colonization of the islands that sit in the South Pacific, about 2,700 miles south of Hawaii.

As far as international multidisciplinary sports festivals go, then, the Heiva more than the Olympics can be seen as indicative of the heart and spirit of Tahiti. With its roots going back to the 19th century, the Heiva is a weekslong celebration of traditional Polynesian culture that has grown and developed over the years as an explicit counterpoint to the relentless external pressure of Western influences.

And with the bulk of the Paris Games taking place some 10,000 miles away from Tahiti next summer, the Heiva may actually come closer to capturing something resembling the Olympic spirit for the people of the island.

“This feels like a Polynesian Olympics — for us, and for our games,” Tainui Lenoir, of the island of Rurutu, said of the Heiva.

Lenoir, 39, took second place last month in the coconut tree climbing contest, one of the many events — along with outrigger canoeing, heavy stone lifting, javelin throwing, fruit carrying races and wrestling — that draw directly from Polynesian cultural heritage.

The marquee competition of the Heiva, though, is the performance of traditional dance, or Ori Tahiti. Every summer, troupes of as many as 200 people travel from all over the region to compete before several thousand boisterous spectators and a panel of discerning judges in a packed amphitheater by the sea.

The dances, backed by heart-pounding drums, are theatrical, intricately choreographed and comprise multiple acts. The pieces typically depict some historical episode or social allegory. And they are inherently loaded with meaning, performers say, because there were long stretches of Tahitian history when the dances were banned or severely controlled by European missionaries and colonizers.

These days, many of the dances deal directly with issues of colonialism and “re-appropriating Polynesian culture,” according to Urarii Berselli, a schoolteacher and dancer whose team won the amateur division this summer.

“It’s more than important,” Berselli said of the dancing. “It’s engraved in our culture.”

Questions about Tahiti’s ability to assert its own identity and interests, in this way, are always quietly simmering in the island’s collective psyche. And the approval in 2020 of the island, specifically the remote beachside village of Teahupoʻo, as the site of the surfing competition for the 2024 Paris Games stirred them anew. The village, home to one of the most powerful, and most famous, surfing breaks in the world, is about 10,000 miles from France.

“They are concerned about the symbolism of this: It’s not a French Polynesian Olympics. It’s the Paris Olympics, and they’re treating Teahupoʻo as a suburb as Paris,” Lorenz Gonschor, a lecturer who studies the politics of Oceania at the University of the South Pacific, in Fiji, said of the discourse in Tahiti.

Some people in Tahiti have more practical concerns about whether the spotlight of the Games would continue a polarizing trend of development and foreign investment on the island. There is anxiety, too, about what environmental impact the arrival of one of the world’s largest sporting events could have on the village and its delicate reef. And there were feelings of resentment recently when organizers came looking for unpaid volunteers to work during the events next summer (a typical and often criticized arrangement at other Olympics).

In a way, the Heiva serves as a brief antidote to these perpetual stresses.

In 1881, soon after Tahiti became a French colony, the locals were allowed once again to partake in their traditional activities in a festival, a precursor to the modern Heiva, that was meant to coincide with Bastille Day, the French national holiday. Games, songs and dances that had been banned were allowed to return, but in sanitized forms. It was not until the latter half of the 20th century that practitioners of Ora Tahiti tried more forcefully to revive the lost art in its true form. Many on the islands were slow at first to re-embrace it. But they have now, wholeheartedly.

“Every year they dance and show their sports, and this is how you feel you have a dignity, a beauty, and are proud to be Tahitian,” said Sabrina Birk, a painter from the island of Huahine. “The contests really brought back a lot of pride among Tahitians. It’s re-appropriating your culture.”

Last month, on the final weekend of the Heiva, a seaside park in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, was humming with activity. Each year, along with the dancing, organizers stage a series of traditional games, known collectively as Tū‘aro Mā‘ohi, which have undergone a revival of their own over the past two decades. Heiva organizers said they hoped the Olympics could draw even more attention to the festival, which is expected to be held again next year just weeks before the Paris Games.

One morning at this year’s festival, competitors in the javelin flung homemade spears at coconut-shell targets on towering poles. Magnificat Maituitu, 18, a student from Anau, on Bora Bora, hit one as the buzzer sounded in the final round of her contest. She pumped a fist and jumped into her teammates’ arms.

“I came here to win,” Maituitu said.

There was Tahitian music drifting around the grounds, and participants in every event wore traditional clothing. Lono Teururai, a competitor in va‘a, Polynesian outrigger canoeing, called the act of competing shirtless, with a head lei and a pareo around his waist, a small but significant detail that he relished each year.

“Our ancestors were paddling like that, and we want to keep the culture,” said Teururai, 37, who has been racing competitively for 15 years. “Otherwise it’s a shirt with a sponsor on it.”

Ancestors were top of mind for many competitors. After winning the 120-kilogram category in the stone lifting competition, Montel Tivoli, a former Olympic-style weight lifter from Rotorua, New Zealand, explained the intangible differences between lifting a barbell and a big rock.

“The connection with the barbell, it’s a lot of angry emotions,” said Tivoli, 24, who had wrapped himself in the flag of the Māori, the Indigenous people of New Zealand. “Whereas with the rock, it’s a more spiritual connection, understanding they were here before us, understanding probably our great-great-grandparents are a part of these rocks, and here we are now with them.”

The stone lifting is said to be based on ancient Polynesian courtship rituals. Other games had similarly quotidian roots. The rules of the coconut-opening contest, for instance, were meant to mirror the practices of the region’s coconut oil workers: slamming the coconuts open with an ax, separating the flesh from the shells, packaging the useful bits and cleaning up the remaining waste.

Solange Temauri, 51, of the island of Mo‘orea, beamed as her sons, Louis and Tau, took first and second place in the young adult division of the competition.

“The coconut tree is life,” said Temauri, whose family works in the coconut industry. “From the top to the bottom, you can use everything from it.”

You can also climb it. Later in the day, Ellio Fiapa‘i — a Michael Phelps-like figure in coconut tree climbing — was bunny-hopping up a tree, scaling the trunk in just a few seconds. It was his fifth time in Tahiti and his fifth time winning. He credited the mana — a universal life force, in local mythology — of the setting for his win.

“Mana is powerful,” said Fiapa‘i, 30, who was born in American Samoa. “It builds up your physical and spiritual energy.”

Just after dawn the next morning, on a deserted beach in Teahupoʻo on the opposite side of the island, Vahine Fierro, a professional surfer from Tahiti, was preparing for a session on the water with the prominent surf photographer, Tim McKenna. The famous Teahupoʻo swell, which sits a quarter mile off shore and is known for its weight and power, was curling gently in the distance.

When Tahiti was announced as the Olympic surfing site, Fierro, 23, who was born on Huahine, a nearby island, and now lives mostly in Teahupoʻo, could not imagine the event taking place without her. So when she qualified for the Games earlier this year, as a member of the French team, she felt more relief than outright happiness.

Fierro, who is also a dancer of Ora Tahiti, said she sympathized with both sides of the conversation around the Olympics. She thought the lively, sometimes contentious discussion had ultimately been a positive thing, helping officials understand how to proceed with respect for the local population.

“Obviously the Olympics is bringing money for people to work and exposure for tourists to see such a magical place,” she said, before riding a jet ski out to the wave. “At the same time, it’s normal for the people who live here to feel a little resistant toward that because they don’t want the place to change.”

The ambivalence was prevalent in the village. A short distance down a dirt path, Alexis Taupua, 72, sat outside his home at a picnic table overlooking the ocean. He has lived his entire life in Teahupoʻo — like his parents and grandparents before him — watching the village change in microscopic increments. He raised his voice now and then to be heard over the fizz of the waves.

“It was a beautiful time,” Taupua said of his youth, “because there were hardly any people.”

Even today, much of Teahupoʻo, including the famed beach, is not accessible by car.

In 1999, the World Surf League began hosting a yearly competition in Teahupoʻo, creating a demand for lodging in the village. Since then, Taupua has regularly hosted surfers and tournament officials in his home. He will do the same during the Olympics, hosting four Olympic staff members, charging roughly $150 each per night.

Taupua said he was nostalgic for the past and rued the changes to his village, but, at the same time, he seemed determined to make the most of the present. “There’s no going back,” he said. “We are evolving.”

The trajectory of that evolution, though, is causing some angst. Cindy Otcenasek, the owner of a tour boat company in the village and the president of Vai Ara O Teahupoʻo, a local environmental protection association, spoke of the frustration that people in the town had experienced over the past three years trying to glean information about the Olympic plans.

Early rumors that athlete accommodations and other facilities would be built had prompted the organization to poll residents and send a letter of concern to the French organizers. Olympic officials recently announced that the surfers would be housed on a cruise ship docked in the bay, alleviating some residents’ worries.

Wild and verdant, Teahupoʻo, in Otcenasek’s mind, is the most beautiful part of Tahiti. She said it had remained largely resistant to tourism-related development, in part because of a southeasterly trade wind, known in Tahiti as Mara‘amu, that brought frequent rain to their side of the island. Resort developers, of course, seek sunlight.

A year before the Games, some concerns remain. Otcenasek said her organization was awaiting details about plans to build a viewing platform for competition judges in the ocean amid worries about its effect on the reef. The village this summer endured a destructive flood, which served as a reminder of how delicate the environment is there.

On a recent morning, Otcenasek was wrapped in a blanket on one of her tour boats, the ocean glistening behind her. She is cautiously optimistic about the future — more at peace, at least, than three years ago, she said. Her mind returns, often, to a local mantra that provides some comfort:

Mara‘amu, she tells herself, will keep sickness away.

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