Robin Sapong Eugenio at the 2018 Micronesian Games, presenting the 200m gold medal to his daughter Zarinae Sapong (© Oceania Athletics Association)
For the next six weeks, we'll be featuring our Area in Focus series, a look at how our six Area associations are building momentum as lockdown restrictions around the world are beginning to ease. This week we'll focus on Oceania and begin with an interview with Oceania Athletics Association president Robin Sapong Eugenio.
As one of the newest members of the World Athletics Council, Robin Sapong Eugenio was eagerly looking forward to his first Council meeting, set for 12 March in Monaco. But just four hours prior to his scheduled departure, he suddenly felt the walls closing in around the northwestern Pacific archipelago that is his home.
Driving those imaginary barriers was the spreading coronavirus pandemic that would, in less than 48 hours, all but shut the Northern Mariana Islands from the rest of the world. One flight option after another faced increasingly restrictive transit rules, airports on the verge of shutting down and eventually, countries sealing their borders. In the end, he would join the meeting remotely, a kind of engagement that’s become commonplace since. Indeed, an almost ‘normal’ way to operate any organisation these days, including the Oceania Athletics Association he’s presided over since the end of last year.
“In the beginning it was difficult,” he said, “because the staff were working at home. But eventually it became a regular thing.”
Running an organisation like his area association, a group of 20 national federations, many of them remote islands that span five time zones and the international date line, poses its own set of challenges under any circumstances.
“In our area it's interesting because we're all separated by ocean,” he said. “We normally communicate via email. Different areas here have different networks. It's really difficult to communicate sometimes.”
Sapong said World Athletics helped set the tone when it began organising weekly meetings of Area Federation Presidents soon after the lockdowns began.
Following up on those weekly Area Federation meetings, Sapong and his team then briefed their own Area Council, partners and other stakeholders. Then, the Area Council followed up by updating the national federations.
“Then we reached out to our member federations and created a platform where they provided input. Coaches, athletes and other partners were invited.”
“I think we're going to come out of this stronger,” he continued. “We can now network better on a daily or weekly basis.”
Dedication to athletics
In all likelihood, that he would be forced to administer a sport through a global pandemic wasn’t what Sapong was expecting when he decided to devote a large portion of his life to the sport he loved.
As an athlete, he said, "I used to complain about athletes not getting what they needed - as far as equipment and training time. So one of my mentors asked me, 'So what are you going to do about it?' I said, 'I don't know. Let's ask the person taking care of it.' And he said, 'No - the only way you can improve the sport is if you bring yourself into it.'”
He answered the call. In 2002 he resigned from his job as a bank manager to become a volunteer assistant coach.
“People asked, 'Are you crazy?' I said that I just needed a shift of vision.” He’s been the Secretary General of the Northern Marianas Federation since and in 2007 was elected to the Oceania Area Council. And he continues to coach.
Addressing athletes’ concerns
Athletes from his region shared similar concerns and faced similar challenges to those around the world when the lockdowns began - restricted training areas and closed facilities. The biggest struggle, he said, was that coaches weren't there to guide them.
"Not everyone had access to platforms where they could be coached by phone or skype or zoom. It was also difficult knowing that they were going to miss the season. For some this was to be their last.”
Last weekend, he said, “We were supposed to kick off our regional championship in Micronesia. And in the morning I woke up and just thought, wow. It was so hard. I just looked at the flags that we were going to have represented. It was just a shock.
“But we tried to remain positive, reminding them that it was just a setback, that other opportunities would come.”
The pandemic lockdown also coincided with storm season, which compounded the difficulties in some areas.
“As (the lockdown) was happening, some of the islands were also facing floods, droughts and at the same time, typhoons and cyclones. Those were also some of the challenges.”
Sapong also faced another challenge. He balances his athletics duties with a job as a safety officer for a hotel chain whose lockdown protocols required him to stay at his hotel since 28 February.
“I’m considered a front line worker, so that’s the way it’s been. The island is just 15 kilometres long but I haven’t seen some of my colleagues for months.”
On the positive side, Sapong said that despite the islands’ feelings of isolation, food shortages were not something most islands had to face, thanks largely to the region’s historic self-reliance.
“When they shut down the airports, people were wondering about food and supplies. Interestingly, there was no panic buying like we saw on TV elsewhere. Most of the islands are sustainable through local fishing and farming.”
Emerging from lockdown
A timely response by national governments managed to keep 13 of the Area's 20 member federations covid-free, but the border closures and travel restrictions have taken a heavy toll on local economies.
"The Oceania Area relies heavily on tourism and for many of our Member Federations the border closures have been devastating, with tourism at a halt," Sapong said. "It may take a long time for some of our Member Federations to recover and this will have an effect on how we operate. In particular we will be at the mercy of some of our sponsors who will no longer be able to support us. In addition there will be many families who have been out of work during this period and this may mean that that they will have less disposable income to share on recreational and sporting activities for either themselves or their families."
But at least competition-wise, his Area is turning a corner.
Palau, which was one of the first countries in this region to shut down, last weekend hosted its first 10km and half marathon road races since their lockdown was lifted. A record 127 runners took part.
“In most places they are hosting virtual runs but in Palau they had an actual road race. The numbers were really good, and really interesting was that it was mostly new runners who were coming out to run," Sapong said, those who took up running during lockdown or those just looking to for an activity once lockdown was over. Most participants, he added, were women.
A few weeks earlier, Nauru celebrated its Constitution Day holiday with a its annual five-day youth track and field festival, one of the first athletics competitions on the planet to be held without restrictions since the coronovirus pandemic began.
Looking ahead, Sapong said that he and his competitions team are looking at options for organising a South Pacific regional cross country competition later in the year. That would be a way of bringing athletes together from some of the area’s largest federations: Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti and Samoa.
But first, several key variables will need to fall into place, not least of which is a safe environment for athletes, their support staff and fans. He also believes that this year’s pandemic brought with it the need for a risk assessment manager to be part of any competition planning team.
"That may be the only way that we can really move forward,” he said. “It’s really good that World Athletics has issued the outbreak prevention outlines so we can work with local authorities to organise the event.”
Sapong said he’s grateful to his staff, most of who are based on the Gold Goast, Australia, who have been vital to ensure that the day-to-day operations continued despite the challenges the pandemic threw in their way.
“My staff have been so creative. Although they've been working from home and very limited, they're a very positive team. I think that's the biggest asset we have in Oceania. I call them the ‘A team’. Whenever I call them with a task, they deliver it in 24 hours.”
All emergencies teach us lessons. This year’s global Covid-19 pandemic was no exception.
“We get so used to taking things for granted,” Sapong said. “Just going to the track tomorrow because it's going to be open. Small things that we never thought would change, did change.”
“From the perspective of the islands, since we're so isolated, we learn how to be resilient. We find ways to work with the resources we have. Instead of stressing about a situation, you find the best solution.”
To explain, he shares an example from the ocean that surrounds him.
“It’s like the difference between a sea cucumber and an eel. A sea cucumber just stays in the sand, moving in the direction of the wave, waiting for the next tide to come.
“But an eel moves and goes down and hunts for food. That's the mentality we have here. We can't wait for the next high tide to come. We have to be adaptive.”
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics