A new report says a global boom in Pacific Island recruits to professional sports is providing a platform for economic growth in their home countries.
Researchers say the world’s two million Polynesians have become a hot commodity for sports ranging from American football to rugby to sumo wrestling.
Co-author Peter Horton from James Cook University has told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat both codes of rugby has led the way for Pacific recruits.
“Looking at this whole realm of Pacific Islanders now becoming one of the major forces in rugby is indicative,” he said.
“Fifty per cent of all junior players, if not more, in West Sydney of Pacific Island descent, not necessarily migrant, but second or third generation even.
“In New Zealand, in their provincial rugby – both Maori and the Islanders are together are something like 17 per cent, if not less, of the playing group of the population…[but] they product 50 per cent of the Super Rugby players that play in New Zealand teams.”
Around 50 Pacific Islanders, including Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu, who is of Samoan descent, play in the NFL, while Tongans also have a strong tradition in competing in sumo in Japan.
Pacific Islanders also figure as a strong presence in the French and British rugby competitions.
Mr Horton attributes such a phenomenon to the role of sports in Pacific Islanders’ culture.
“This is one of the only ways in which young Pacific Islanders men can actually get ahead into the family, into the community,” he said.
“Rugby is one of their passions, second probably after the church, and of course ahead of their family – and the family is an incredibly important aspect of Pacific Islanders.”
This phenomenon, he says, is sometimes seen as an exploitation of the talent in the Pacific region.
“There’s a French rugby team that now has a coaching nursery, a rugby nursery in the islands in Fiji and they run camps and they coach kids and then they pluck the best kids and zoom them off to France at a young age into junior levels,” he said.
“They then get citizenship or residency which then allows the club to maintain them which probably excludes them from their national team if they become good, or Fiji’s national team if they become good.
“It parallels in many ways, the harvesting shall we say, perhaps blackbirding of Pacific Islander rugby players, to keep in mind the colonial sort of image of people being plucked out of the islands and dropped into the sugar industries in Queensland.”
However, Mr Horton says Pacific Islanders’s involvement in the international sporting scene should not be seen as an exploitation but rather, as a platform for them to contribute to their family and wider community economically.
“They contribute to the family, they then contribute to their wider family or community in their islands, usually up to 30 per cent of income, and many have ties to churches,” he said.
“I hear some of the people in my research have put in, their family puts in as much as $10,000 a year into their local church.”