In a large church hall near the Samoan legislature, 175kg judo practitioner Derek Sua is being thrown to the mat by his Japanese coach, a black belt who is just one-third his size.
Sua welcomes the training, usually difficult for athletes on Pacific Ocean islands to secure, but now offered free by Japan’s development assistance agency to help him qualify for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s not easy, because here in the Pacific for us, especially Pacific islanders, we have limited competition, because we need to find funding to travel overseas and compete,” Sua said.
He added that he would train in Japan this month with several other Samoans, following an invitation he described as fostering goodwill between the two nations.
However, the offer is also part of a wider diplomatic effort in the Pacific by the US and its allies to counter the growing influence of China, which has ramped up its sports programs in the region.
Last week, Samoan Minister of Education, Sports and Culture Loau Keneti Sio said that China had extended an invitation to train a “large contingent” of young athletes in sports, from athletics to badminton and volleyball, later this year.
China had already hosted Samoan athletes ahead of last month’s Olympic-styled Pacific Games in Samoa, while training chefs and performers for the opening and closing ceremonies, he added.
China has soft power initiatives elsewhere in the Pacific, which include exposing table tennis players to the nation’s world-class coaches and training regimes.
The judo diplomacy complements similar initiatives from Australia and New Zealand, which use rugby union and league to forge strong ties with Pacific islands.
On the mats in Samoa, Sua’s coach, Kohei Kamibayashi, said that judo is a sport in which the most powerful practitioners did not always win.
The Japanese coach said his star Samoan pupil, who competed at the last Olympics in Rio, must prepare to face bigger opponents in his 100kg-plus category, where there are no weight limits.
Kamibayashi said he was helping Sua perfect his use of a technique called seoi-nage, effective for throwing bigger opponents.
While Samoans were naturally built for a sport such as judo, it is a very demanding martial art that is still struggling to win converts on the island, Sua added.
“It can be another dominant sport here in Samoa if a lot of people get interested,” he said.
Chen Jifang hits the gym for at least two hours every day and has the physique to prove it. At nearly 70, she is being held up as a shining example as China orders its vast population to get fit and lose the bulge. The grandmother from Shanghai has become a minor celebrity in in the past few months after her newfound and unlikely love for working out made national headlines. After becoming a gym regular in December 2018, Chen lost 14kg in three months, and now sports the kind of flat stomach and toned muscles that people decades younger aspire to. She
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