Traditional Games Thriving in the Cook Islands

Earlier this month Radio New Zealand reported that plans are already afoot to expand the traditional sports program at the next Cook Islands Games.

The revival of traditional games like stilt races and coconut husking were among of the highlights of last year’s multi-sport event in Rarotonga, in which one fifth of the Cook Islands’ population competed across 24 sports.

It was the first time the traditional games were not just an exhibition event and while the competition did not contribute to the overall points tally, the island of Atiu did come away with a trophy.

The coordinator for the traditional sports event, George Paniani, told Champions of the Pacific the disciplines double as social events, celebrating and helping preserve the Cook Island culture. “People started knowing themselves, knowing their relatives, knowing their bloodlines, knowing which island they come from,” he said. 

“Knowing these things, in respect of the history and where you come from – each island – that it’s one big happy family and being not as physically competitive as one would have in contact sport but more in the family, social and recognising each other’s relationship very closely, being appreciative of each other and most of all having fun.”

The Ministry of Cultural Development is in charge of all cultural events in the Cook Islands and has a national strategy to strengthen their language. Anthony Turia heads the committee which helped design last year’s traditional games program and said community support is crucial, with northern and southern group all having their own unique traditional sports which come with different versions and rules.

Only five disciplines were included in the 2020 program: stilts, weaving, juggling, coconut relay and coconut husking, with organizers favoring events that had a high degree of safety.

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Stilts competition, Photo: Supplied/CISNOC Media

The stilt games, which date back to tribal challenges from early settlers to the Cook Islands 700-800 years ago, featured 50 metre relay races, combat challenges on two stilts and balancing on one stilt.

Juggling was introduced by missionaries to the Cook Islands who used candlenut or stones, although limes proved more practical in the 21st century.  The competition was targeted at young men and women between 14-16 and included people juggling two ‘marbles’ with one hand or three with two hands.

Each competitor in the coconut relay had to carry at least 12 coconuts for 25 metres after which other members of their team would then husk the coconuts clean, while weavers created a range of items including baskets, clothing and hats.

The traditional games proved such a success that within a couple of weeks two secondary schools in Rarotonga had initiated the same program. “Our kids will be able to see how our older generations survived during the time there was no western influences and how they lived during those olden days using some of these traditional sports to survive,” explained Anthony Turia from the Cook Islands Ministry of Cultural Development. 

“It also can fit in now because with the Covid-19 it actually worked out because instead or relying on tourists and all the fishing boats going you can actually do it yourself.”

Plans are already well advanced to expand the traditional sports program when the Cook Islands Games return in 2022.  “We wanted to test the interest and in fact it was just so high the demand and pressure for us to introduce all the other traditional games have come aboard.”

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Coconut relay, Photo: Supplied/CISNOC Media

Coconut tree climbing was among the disciplines considered last year but was deemed a bit of a health and safety nightmare, Turia said. “I think it’s like any other sport – you can’t just go and play rugby and you’re not physically fit and you meet the fitness criteria. It’s the same with climbing a coconut tree. “In the olden days you don’t use a rope, you actually use the bark of a tree so you get the bark of a tree and you strengthen it then you tie it up and you put it around your legs and then you climb up the coconut tree.”

Also on the shortlist is ‘throwing discs’, in which grapefruits are hurled down the road as far and fast as possible. That was also ruled out last year over concerns a wayward chuck might end up hurting an unlucky spectator. 

Another contender is ‘stone-lifting’, although Ngatuaine Maui from the Ministry of Cultural Development said a number of factors must be considered. “We needed to look into what’s a safe size of stone for a person to lift and all those other criteria because we can’t expect them to come and lift it straight away, they need to prepare for it, otherwise there will be injuries…the other one was the water sports (such as spear finish and free diving) because that’s very prevalent in the north because they have larger lagoons and they do the canoeing.”

The Ministry said the plan is to retain the five sports that featured last year and hopefully add another two or three in time for the 2022 Cook Islands Games.

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