New Caledonia: The Crossroads of Sport Climbing and Indigenous History

As Noumea, New Caledonia gets ready to host the 2014 International Federation of Sport Climbing World Youth Championships from 19-24 September, I wonder if or to what extent Kanak history and contemporary issues will come to the fore. Sporting events have, in the past, formed venues for the hosting states to show to the world their legitimacy, level of modernity, solidarity, and commitment to contemporary concerns, such as human rights. On the other hand, indigenous activists have used such events to raise awareness of their history and contemporary concerns in order to gain wider recognition and support of their history, identity, rights, and potential restitution. There are many examples of this, including Ainu and other indigenous people’s participation in the St. Louis Olympics at the turn of the twentieth century, Lubicon Lake Cree calls to attention during the 1988 Calgary Olympics, and First Nation protest of and participation in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. More recently, the Japanese Government announced that it would build a centre to honour Ainu culture in advancement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The Kanak are the Melanesian indigenous people of New Caledonia. Today, with a population just shy of 100,000 they represent about forty percent of the current population. France took possession of New Caledonia in 1853, whereupon that country used the archipelago as a penal colony. Similar to other French colonial possessions in the Pacific, the people of New Caledonia supported the Free French government during World War II, and the archipelago proved important for Allied bases in the Pacific theatre. Upon close of World War II, France first placed and then removed New Caledonia (along with French Polynesia) from the United Nations list of Non-Self Governing Territories set for eventual decolonization. New Caledonia became a French Overseas Territory and in 1956 Kanak people gained French citizenship. Nonetheless, political battles between the indigenous people and French authorities have continued as the Kanak have lagged behind the French population in socio-economic standards¬—hardly a unique situation when considering indigenous—non-indigenous relations around the world. The 2011 report on New Caledonia by James Anaya, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, reminds us of many of these issues.

Although growth of sport climbing as an indoor recreational and competitive sport has steadily grown around the world, the International Olympic Committee has not recognized it as an Olympic sport, and thus it will not appear in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. This may signal that the IOC is not ready to admit a non-traditional sport into the Olympics. It is also an indication that the IOC thinks that the sport does not have a broad enough appeal to gain such international status, hence the IFSC’s decision to have World Championships rotate among continents. But it is also worth pondering if the scheduling of an international sporting event in New Caledonia in 2014 has underlying political meaning beyond the IFSC’s goals. This year marks the first year of a five-year period in which another independence referendum is to occur as envisioned by the Noumea Accord. Competitive sport climbing may have the force to strengthen the ideals of a nation-state and their grasp on some of their last remaining colonies (in this case France, which is the sponsoring nation and a longstanding world leader in competitive climbing), but it remains to be seen if indigenous activists will view the event as having a broad enough audience for them to utilize for their search for rights and independence.

The 2014 IFSC World Youth Climbing Championships provides an interesting opportunity to reflect on the broader role of the sport in world politics and indigenous histories and contemporary struggles. It is a topic certainly worthy of more consideration that these few paragraphs.

© Scott Harrison 2014

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