Vanuatu would make the most of hosting the 1993 Pacific Mini Games, with Athletics and Boxing taking most of the medals.
In the first 30 years of the South Pacific Games, Vanuatu (New Hebrides) won five gold medals. As Team New Hebrides there was one gold medal, and in the 1970s one more. The other three were won in the first decade of independence.
The 1980s is considered a Golden era for NH-Vanuatu. There number of gold medals totalled 15, and there was a substantial increase to the overall medal medals tally.
Hosting of the Mini Games in Port Vila (1993) inspired the nation. There was a growth in all areas: participation, spectator engagement and variety sports available. There were new high standard facilities built from stadiums, athletics tracks and sporting fields.
Mary-Estelle Mahuk (Kapalu) continued to improve here performance with each outing. Following her move to Goroka Teachers’ College (in Eastern Highlands of PNG) she blossomed from good coaching and regular high level competition against. Her drive to improve was motivated to excel in a pool of extremely good PNG women athletes.
Living and competing in such a competitive environment was the beginning of her rise to prominence in Pacific Islands’ Athletics.
A move to Port Moresby saw Mahuk [pictured right] take up the 400m Hurdles event, with immediate success. By the end of the PNG National Championships/SPG Trials, she was ready for all-comers.
On Day One of the Athletics competition both Mahuk and Baptiste Firiam qualified for their respective 400m Finals. The following day, Baptiste finished in 5th position in his final (48.78s) and Mahuk won gold in a Games Record and Vanuatu National Record time of (55.82s). A solid start to the Games.
A few day’s later Firiam was the fastest qualifier in the 800m heats. Known as a 400m runner, he was not really highly fancied. At this stage many of the 800m runners combined this event with the 1500m and a sprinter was not thought to have enough stamina for the two-lap race.
On the same day, Mahuk was the fastest qualifier in the 400m Hurdles (61.16s), setting a new National Record. She was just a few tenths of a second faster than PNG’s Tahiri Homerang, who had defeated her in the PNG National Championships the month before.
Also on the same day Tawai Keiruan won a silver medal in the 5000m creating a new Vanuatu National Record of 15:47.56s.
The following day was another good one for Vanuatu. Mahuk convincingly won the 400m Hurdles setting a new PNG All-Comers Record, and new Vanuatu National Record of 60.98s.
Within the hour Vanuatu had yet another gold medal with Firiam proving his critics wrong by winning the 800m Final (1:54.8s NR) – thus showing runners with 400m speed could easily prepare for the longer distance.
Adding to the tally with a bronze was Ancel Nalau in 3000m Steeplechase (10:10.47s).
A very good start to the 1990s in Athletics for Vanuatu.
One of Vanuatu’s traditionally popular and strong sports – Boxing – produced two medals in PNG in 1991, in the 67kg Division, Abal Malon won the silver medal while in the 48kg Division, the bronze went to Kalontas Malon (the designer of the Vanuatu national flag).
After being considered as a serious prospect to host the 1979 SPG – which eventually went to Suva – Port Vila was successful in its bid to host the 1993 Mini Games.
The successful sports were again Athletics and Boxing.
The Vanuatu Boxing team won two gold medals with Vincent Kauo (Featherweight) and Peter Frank (Light Flyweight) enjoying the victories while Jimmy Kalai won a silver in the Lightweight division. Bronze medals also went to Flyweight boxer, Colwyn Mila and Harry Kila in his Welterweight division.
Of interest, the Superheavyweight Division was awarded to Tongan legend Paea Wolfgramm. Three years later, at the Olympic Games in Atlanta (1996), Wolfgramm was again fighting for gold, this time with a broken hand. He narrowly lost the bout to Vladimir Klitschko (UKR) who later became the professional Heavyweight Champion of the World, retiring in 2017.
Being December, and the middle of the rainy season with stormy conditions for much of the meet, Athletics experienced some of the strongest negative winds in Games history. It considerably slowed the field and many runners’ times reflected this.
Following her standout performances in Port Moresby, Mahuk again dominated the field with her gold medal performances. In the 400m, she established not only a Games Record and a National Record, but ran the fastest time ever by a Pacific Islands woman – 54.25s. In the 400m Hurdles. she won with a time of 60.99s.
Firiam also enjoyed a good meet at these Games. He finished third in the 400m Final (47.87s) and second in the 800m (1:59.10s).
Tawai Keiruan, coached by Mahuk, stepped-up now to be one of the most respected middle and long distance runners in the Pacific. He won the 1500m in the Games Record time of 3:58.28s and then picked-up the silver in the 3000m Steeplechase. In the 1500m Keiruan [pictured in foreground] defeated the defending champion Davendara Prakash Singh (FIJ).
The Vanuatu quartet then impressed further by winning the bronze medal in the Men’s 4x400m Relay with a time of 3:17.70s.
In 1995, Tahiti (French Polynesia) played host to the next South Pacific Games.
Like New Caledonia (1987) there was a lot of tension because of the French Nuclear Testing at Mururoa and other Pacific Island atolls. The Tahitian protest leader, Oscar Temaru, put it all in perspective, however, when he told all of the nations the Games did not belong to France, they belonged to all of the people of the Pacific Islands. He welcomed everyone to his home island, and put many nervous teams at ease.
Vanuatu’s medal tally was three gold, six silver and ten bronze.
The Tahiti Games were peaceful and went off without a hitch. Athletics performances were a standout, contributing half of the Team Vanuatu medals.
Australian athletics statistician and sports stalwart, Bob Snow noted, “It was the highest overall standard I have ever experienced in my involvement in the sport since 1975.
“Anybody who won a medal in Athletics in the Stade Pater was truly a champion. Sadly the crowds stayed away, filling only the Football venue.”
The stadium track had only six lanes, and to progress to the final of the sprint events was somewhat of a challenge.
Keiruan won the gold in the 3000m Steeplechase in the time of 9:21.11s to defeat defending champion Davendra Prakash Singh (FIJ) in a tactical battle. The clash between these two was one of the highlights of the Athletics competition.
Tawai also won two middle distance medals in the 1500m (silver – 3:58.63s) and the 800m (bronze – 1:52.91s).
The depth of Vanuatu sprinting was seen in the two bronze medals in the Men’s 4x100m (41.26s) and the 4x400m Relays (3.16.09s) with the 4x100m quartet of Frankie Mariello, Jansen Molisingi, Baptiste Firiam and Laurence Jack finishing in third with a National Record of 41.26 secs behind sprinting powerhouses PNG and Fiji.
Competing in the 4x400m Relay were Tavakalo Kailes, Jean-Pierre Tiopang, Tawai Keiruan and Baptiste Firiam running another National Record (3:16.09s) to claim the bronze behind Fiji and PNG.
Not to be outdone by her male team members, Mahuk expanded her running repertoire to four. In her first final for the 200m and 800m she claimed a silver (24.85s NR) and bronze (2:13.69s NR).
It was in her signature events, however, where she stamped her authority on the track. In the 400m, she won by more than a second (54.69s), setting a new Games Record. But it was the 400m that Mahuk decimated the field with a 5 second plus advantage to take gold in 59.65s setting a new Games and National Record.
“She owned these events in the 1990s,” said Bob Snow.
Boxing contributed two silver and three bronze medals, continuing to punch above its weight in the South Pacific Games.
The two silver medals went to R. Supa (48kg Division) and T. Fred. (51kg) with Bronze medals going to J. Iarwel (57kg), L. Malon (63.5kg) and H. Kaloran (67kg).
Karate won three medals with Noel Lango securing silver in the 75kg Division and two bronze medals going to P. Nalau (65kg) and S. Sileye (Open Division).
There was a bronze for Y. Hui in the Women’s Single Table Tennis.
At the 1997 Mini Games in Pago Pago (American Samoa), it was Boxing which won bragging rights over Athletics in the medal tally.
Boxing won one gold, three silver and three bronze to Athletics’ one gold, one silver and three bronze.
The Boxing gold went to Moli Livo in the 51kg Division with three silver medals awarded to Jimmy Yeon (54kg), Peter Tao (63.5kg) and Carl David (71kg).
Bronze medals were won by Donny Alick (60kg), Samson Sam (67kg) and Kalie Jacabus (81kg).
In Athletics, the gold medal was won by Keiruan in the 3000m Steeplechase (9:30.86s). He added a silver medal in the 1500m (3:59.88s) and a bronze in the 5000m (15:58.40s) to demonstrate a good range in ability. He was the only individual medalist for Athletics Vanuatu.
Once again the relays proved to be good events for Vanuatu. In the Men’s 4x100m, the quartet of Baptiste Firiam, Jansen Molisingi, Laurence Jack and Jude Brown Tabeleo recorded the time of 42.11s to win the bronze medal. A bronze also came in the 4x400m Relay for Tavakalo Kailes, Jude Brown Tabeleo, Baptiste Firiam and Harrison Solomon (3:21:56s)
In the absence of Mahuk [pictured] there were no women athletes from Vanuatu. She would, however, return in two years’ time and be even more dominant.
The last South Pacific Games of the 1990’s was held in Guam (1999).
This time the Mariana Islands were much better prepared than they were in 1975 and the Games proceeded smoothly.
Vanuatu won two gold medals, eight silver and 12 bronze, spread across five different sports.
Two team events brought bronze medals – the first medals for both sports at the Pacific Games level – with Netball and Rugby taking centre stage.
Vanuatu defeated Norfolk Island 41-36 in the play-off for the third place in the Netball competition with the gold being won by Fiji which defeated PNG 60-32.
In Rugby Sevens, the Vanuatu men secured their bronze defeating the Solomon Islands 26-7 with Fiji winning the gold medal over PNG 40-12.
It was also the first time Table Tennis got on the medal table with three silver medals and two bronze.
The silver medals went to Wei-Yein Wong in the Women’s Singles, to Wei-Yang Wong and Anolyn Lulu [pictured] in the Women’s Doubles, with the quartet of Kerian Mok, Wei-Yein Wong, Anolyn Lulu & Emmeline Lulu in the Women’s Team event.
The bronze medal was won by Mok and Lulu in the Women’s Doubles, and Lulu in the Women’s Singles.
Boxing won four bronze medals through the performances of Michael Manses (51kg Division), Obro Timakata (67kg), Eric Wassab (71kg) and Kalie Jacobus (75kg).
Men’s Karate secured five medals – three silver and two bronze. The silver medals were won by Stiphrile Siley (70kg), Henry Wolka (75kg) and Noel Lango in the Men’s Open Division. The bronze medals went to John Lui (80kg) and the Men’s Team Event.
The gold medals for Vanuatu came predictably from Mahuk in Athletics setting the Record books alight yet again in both the 400m (54.30s) and the 400m Hurdles (58.90s). Like in Tahiti four years earlier, Mahuk added a bronze medal in the 200m (25.16s) and a silver in the 800m (2:18.33s).
Keiruan won his 4th medal in the 3000m Steeplechase, this time adding the silver (9:45.23s). The only other Athletics medal was to Lily Beth Hunai who set a National Record and finished in third place in the 1500m (4:59.49s).
The Golden 1990s was at an end and a new millennium beckoned.