Athletics

Baptist Firiam during the 1993 Pacific Mini Games in Vanuatu

Today’s former champion’s profile features Baptist Firiam, former sprinter and 800-meter-runner, now the private secretary to the Minister of Youth and Sport Development.

The father of four became a part of Vanuatu’s sporting history in 1988 when Vanuatu gained membership to the International Olympic committee, which made Vanuatu eligible to participate in its first Olympic games in Seoul that year.

In the Olympic trials in the 400 meters at the Port Vila Stadium, Baptist finished 2nd to Mark Bethel of North Efate, however, Bethel had exams and could not travel to Seoul so our runner had the opportunity to be a part of Vanuatu’s first Olympics contingent.

Upon arrival in South Korea, Firiam was placed in the same heat as American Butch Reynolds and came 7th in his heat in 51 seconds. Butch Reynolds went on to win gold in the 400 meters and set a record time of 45 seconds.

The Emae native gained an interest in running at an early age. Born in Port Vila in 1971 as the second born of five children, racing for fun with his siblings and other children was a favorite past time.

During Primary School days at Ecole Public [now Ecole Centre Ville], Firiam saw a role model in his teacher, George Daniel who was a former 100/200-meter sprinter.

Competitive running started in 1983 while attending high school at Lycee Louis Antoine de Bougainville. The school organized cross-country races which followed bush tracks through out Stade and Fresh Wota areas that were sparsely populated in those days. Our runner also competed against other high schools under coach and sport teacher, Philip Iatiknu.

While running our champion in the making also played junior level football competitively as a full back for a now defunct team, Union Sportive d’Anamboru which was owned by the late Henri Taga.

Our golden boy first wore the Vanuatu uniform in a challenge between Vanuatu and New Caledonia in 1987. This was a preparation for both nations at the Port Vila stadium towards the South Pacific Games.

Joining the 4x100 relay team as the finisher, alongside Ancel Nalau, Mark Bethel and present day Tafea Provincial planner Nakat Kukre, the boys claimed first place in the event.

The 47 year old then represented Port Vila, the following year in the Inter District Games [ now the national games]. He made the 400 meters final but finished fourth behind Johnny Kai of Tafea, Mark Bethel of Port Vila while Makon Joseph of Malekula grabbed the gold medal.

The fourth-place finish however made our champion even more determined to train harder and do better which he did.

Under the guidance of coach Jean Bai Tranaut with the assistance of Kanam Wilson and William Iopa, the Junior mapping officer of the survey department at that time found himself in the Vanuatu team for the 1989 Pacific Mini Games in Tonga.

Despite only making it to the semifinals, he set a new national record of 48.98 seconds. Fellow Ni Vanuatu Joseph Makon went on to win gold in the final.

Better days were yet to come for the Vanuatu Institute of technology Art graduate, both in his working career and on the running track.

While the map maker was producing Vanuatu’s first colored maps, he was selected into the squad for the 1991 South Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea. This time he was to take part in 3 events.

Despite finishing fifth in the 400 meters final, he broke his own national record with a time of 48:78 seconds. Competing for the first time in the 800 meters the boy who kept pushing on claimed his first gold medal while representing the nation. He also took part in the 4x400 meters and the team finished fourth in the finals.

After being part of the first Olympic games contingent the multi event participant travelled to Spain in 1992 with Team Vanuatu for the Barcelona Olympics where he was the flag bearer.

Participating in the 400 meters once again and being placed in the same heat as American, Quincy watt, a personal best was achieved with a time of 48:06 seconds. Watt went on to win gold and brake fellow American Butch Reynolds record from the previous games.

Vanuatu won the bid to host the Pacific Mini Games, the following year in the brand new Korman stadium in Port Vila. Knowing the home crowd would be behind and not wanting to disappoint the fans, the fifth-place finisher in Port Moresby pushed the limits further on home soil and snatched the bronze medal as well as setting a new national record with a time of 47:87 seconds.

With hopes of repeating history from two years earlier. The 800 meters gold medalist finished the event with a silver medal.

Two years later at the South Pacific Games in Tahiti the multi medal winner finished fourth in the 400 meters final and bowed out of the 800 meters semi finals in a fifth-place finish due to feeling ill, but however broke the games record of 1 minute 53 seconds.

The record setter made the finals in both the 800 and 400 meters and finished fourth in both events in the 1997 Pacific Mini games in American Samoa.

He once again finished in the same position in the final of both events at the South Pacific Games of 1999 in Guam. These were the newly appointed Shefa sport officer’s last Pacific Mini Games and South Pacific Games respectively.

Today the certified International Amateur Athletics federation coach looks back and smiles upon those glory days, stating that he strongly believes our kids today can easily be the Usain Bolts or Cathy Freemans however more self-determination, commitment, dedication and obedience is needed.

The veteran runner further mentions that these days, there are not enough athletics completions as there were in his times and also stresses the importance of the Ministry of Education and Training and the Ministry of Youth and Sport Development working together to put sport back into the curriculum and having well trained sport teachers in schools and even go as far as identifying our young elite athletes and securing sports scholarships for them to attend university in America and train amongst the best runners.

Raymond Nasse

Sports Editor

raymond@dailypost.vu

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