Sunday, April 14, 2024

Can Tahitians protect their way of life?

In response to criticism, now 98 per cent of Olympic housing will be within the homes of locals, with athletes accommodated on a cruise ship anchored nearby. The size of the judging tower has been scaled back and new infrastructure plans are being drawn up to minimise the need for new construction.

A surfer walks along the beach in Teahupo’o.

A surfer walks along the beach in Teahupo’o.Credit: AP

But concerns remain. Environmentalists and local fishers fear that drilling into the coral reef could attract ciguatera, a microscopic algae that infects fish and makes people sick if eaten, and many sustain themselves by what they catch in the ocean.

Mormon Maitei, 22, makes a living from spearfishing in the lagoons, feeding his family and selling what he has left over. “The lagoon is our refrigerator, it’s where we get our dinner from,” he said.

The sought-after shape of the waves could be affected, too, islanders say, if the reef were to fissure and lose the shape that the waves rely on to form.

“If it does crack and break off, there will be no more wave over here, it will be finished for us,” said Levy.

In December, local fears were confirmed when a barge razed sections of coral on its way to the construction site on the reef. A video of the damage spread on social media, provoking an outcry.

A couple sells bags of freshly caught tuna by the side of the road in Teahupo’o.

A couple sells bags of freshly caught tuna by the side of the road in Teahupo’o.Credit: AP

Cindy Otcenasek, the president of Via Ara o Teahupo’o, called the destruction deeply hurtful. “In Polynesian culture, gods are present everywhere, in the coral, in the ocean,” she said. “The ocean is considered to be the most sacred temple.”

“The fish live around the corals so if we break a coral, we break a home,” she said.

Olympic organisers expressed their concern over the incident.

“It was awful for us,” said Barbara Martins-Nio, a senior event manager for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games Organisation Committee. “Tahitians have this special relationship with nature, with their lands, and it was like a bomb for us.”

A child plays on a sculpture of the Teahupo’o wave at the end of the road.

A child plays on a sculpture of the Teahupo’o wave at the end of the road.Credit: AP

Martins-Nio said that their interactions with local groups were now improving, and the organising team has taken a step back on several issues and are better involving local groups so that construction work is fully transparent.

Despite the fears, some on the island still see the Games as an opportunity. Much of the local population is in favour of it, the economic benefits it could bring and the standing it will give their little corner of French Polynesia.

Born and raised in Teahupo’o, Gregory Parker’s morning routine consists of watching the waves crash along the horizon from his beachfront bungalow while smoking a cigarette. But while the Games are in town, he’s willing to sacrifice that for a bit of spare cash by renting it out.

Surfers paddle over the top of a wave in Teahupo’o, Tahiti.

Surfers paddle over the top of a wave in Teahupo’o, Tahiti.Credit: AP

His family owns a significant portion of properties in the village that are regularly rented out to the international surf community during the annual World Surf League competition, and he intends to do the same for the Olympics.

“I will try to live at my daughter’s house during the Games. If she also rents out her house, I have a tent,” Parker said. “It’s not hard for two weeks, and given all the money I will make, it’s worth it.”

Just months before the Games, a small group of local surfers bobbed up and down in the water, awaiting the perfect wave, when 21-year-old Kauli Vaast, who’s competing in this year’s Olympics, spotted it forming.

He was quick to slide his board into one of the glassy tubes, gliding out before the wave thundered down onto the reef, a monstrous spray of lapping white froth raining down behind him.


“Magical things happen here, you feel this energy and you must show respect,” said Vaast. “It is so important to show respect in these types of places where you face mother nature.”

Vaast learnt how to surf on these waves at just eight years old, nearly 40 years after Peva Levy first felt the wave’s mana. Mana that many islanders feel and want to preserve.

“We hear a lot about the infrastructure and heritage that will be left by the Olympic Games, but we already have an ancestral heritage,” said Otcenasek. “Teahupo’o is the land of God before being the land of the Games.”

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