There are plenty of ways to celebrate victory at the Olympics: You can do the Lightning Bolt like Usain Bolt. You can do various things with your fingers like Michael Phelps. You can brag on Twitter. But rarely has anyone danced like David Katoatau did this week in Rio. And what’s remarkable about his dancing is that Katoatau didn’t win anything. The weightlifter from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati finished sixth in the men’s 105-kilogram Group B final. He’s dancing because he’s not sure what else he can do at this point to help his sinking, storm-battered country.
Katoatau has been dancing at weightlifting competitions for a couple years now. In Rio, he told Reuters why: “Most people don’t know where Kiribati is. I want people to know more about us so I use weightlifting, and my dancing, to show the world. I wrote an open letter to the world last year to tell people about all the homes lost to rising sea levels. I don’t know how many years it will be before it sinks.”
In that letter, which he wrote with the help of his coach, Paul Coffa, Katoatau despaired over the threat climate change posed to his homeland and other low-lying Pacific islands, and pleaded for international support to preserve Kiribati:
I have never felt so helpless in my life[.] As a sportsman I have offered everything to my country but I cannot save it. On behalf of all the people who will die for the country that will no longer exist and for the culture which will long be forgotten, I am asking for your help.
Last year I built myself the only home I could afford—a tebuia, a traditional hut—right next door to my parents. A few months later, it was destroyed by waves. …
The schools I have visited in Kiribati and the thousands of children I have met aspire to be something great. How do I lie to them and say their dreams are possible when our nation is disappearing?
I beg the countries of the world to see what is happening to Kiribati. The simple truth is that we do not have the resources to save ourselves. We will be the first to go.
Katoatau, who lives and trains in New Caledonia in the South Pacific, told Vice last year that young people in Kiribati now “see weightlifting as a way out of the country.”