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Papua New Guinea

Cook Islands to challenge swimming ruling

Swimming is one of 19 sports at the Pacific Games where athletes must hold a passport for the country they are representing (NZ passport for Cook Islands) and have lived there for at least five years.

Papua New Guinea challenged the eligibility of Bede Aitu, Kirsten Fisher-Marsters, Malcolm Richardson and Noah Vilisoni-Heather, who all grew up in New Zealand.

The Cook Islands Olympic Committee immediately withdrew three of the swimmers while the evidence of residency provided for the fourth was deemed insufficient by the Pacific Games Disputes Tribunal.

The President of the Cook Islands Aquatics Federation, Romani Katoa, admits they were aware of the eligibility rules but believed that because it was also an Olympic qualifying event the five year residency did not apply.

"And what we understand is that the Pacific Games Council went into this understanding that this is an Olympic qualifier and therefore they have to meet all the eligibility requirements."

"Therefore the FINA rules applied, which is our understanding of it, so this process is still ongoing - it's not over," he said.

In a statement, Pacific Games Council CEO Andrew Minogue said that "being an Olympic qualifier is not relevant in this case."

He said seven sports (basketball, cricket, football, netball, rugby sevens, sailing, weightlifting) currently use the rules of their International Federations at the Pacific Games and any other sport can apply to do the same and would be accepted immediately.

But Romani Katoa said the five year residency rule is outdated and the Pacific Games Council should lead the way in removing it, instead of leaving the decision to the individual sports.

"One of the requirements was that we had to raise this 18 months ago. We didn't know who our swimmers were going to be to representing us at the Pacific Games for it to be considered to get rid of the five year residency."

"But we felt strongly that the FINA rule applied in this instance and we have confirmation from FINA too that that was the ruling and that they understood it and that the Pacific Games Council went to get approval for it become and Olympic qualifier then it has to be under the FINA rules," he said.

Romani Katoa said their situation had brought the issue into the open and a lot of countries want to discuss it and make sure everyone is playing by the same rules.

"And unfortunately our kids were challenged. We know of several other countries they have managed to have their swimmers compete and it's a bit unfair but we can't comment on that until this issue is resolved and we hope to have this resolved soon - rather now than later - so that it's clear for everyone and fair for everyone," he said.

Despite the swimming competition in Apia wrapping up at the weekend, Romani Katoa said they plan to hold further discussions with the Cook Islands Sports and National Olympic Committee and swimming's world governing body, FINA.

The 2019 Pacific Games still proved a historic one for the Cook Islands in the pool, with Wesley Roberts winning the country's first ever swimming medals.

The 22 year-old won gold in the men's 200m freestyle, silver in 400m and 1500m and bronze in the 100m.

"Coming into the Games I definitely thought that I could medal, that was the goal. We set some goals and I'm glad that some of them paid off. Some of them not so much - I think we wanted a few more wins - but that's ok, it happens, that's sport, so looking good going forward," he said.

And there's no time for rest with Wesley Roberts already in South Korea for the World Championships, which run for the next two weeks.

Photo RNZI. Caption: President of the Cook Islands Aquatics Federation, Romani Katoa

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