Olympic weightlifter’s funky moves highlight heavy issue: his country is drowning

As serious scientists sweat about news from NASA revealing that we’ve just experienced the hottest July since records began (also the warmest month ever recorded since 1880 and the 10th record-breaking month in a row), a dancing weightlifter at the Rio Olympics has just forced the climate change–related plight of his Pacific nation onto the world stage.

David Katoatau from Kiribati finished sixth in the men’s 105kg B Group on Tuesday, but he got a bigger cheer than anyone else, including a Brazilian athlete, as he performed his trademark dance before leaving the stage.

Katoatau beams as he performs his funky moves, but his message is dead serious: Kiribati, a super remote scattering of 33 islands and atolls in the central Pacific, is suffering ‘extreme coastal erosion not just of the beaches but also of the land’, according to its government.

With rising sea levels caused by warming temperatures, low lying islands in the Pacific are in danger of being rendered uninhabitable, and the their populations face the prospect of becoming climate-change refugees.

Concerned scientists have predicted a catastrophic effect on Kiribati’s 21 inhabited islands, and the government has already purchased land in Fiji, predicting that it will need to resettle its population of 100,000 people in the very near future.

And Kiribati knows firsthand how real this threat is, having already lost his family home to extreme weather.

The charismatic weightlifter came to prominence when he won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland two years ago. It was the first gold medal in any global sporting event that Kiribati had ever won, and he was given a state reward of A$11,000 for his efforts, which he used to build a house for his parents on Tarawa atoll, the most populated of the atolls and islands that comprise Kiribati. Within months of its construction, the house was destroyed by a cyclone.

Kiribati is an ultra remote collection of 33 islands and atolls in the central Pacific. It's idyllic, but it's also under imminent threat of disappearing forever.
Kiribati is an ultra remote collection of 33 islands and atolls in the central Pacific. It’s idyllic, but it’s also under imminent threat of disappearing forever.


Kiribati—who trained on the beach in the absence of a gym in his home country, and had to begin at 6am to avoid the bar becoming too hot under the blazing sun—is determined to use his success to raise awareness of his people’s plight.

‘Most people don’t know where Kiribati is,’ Kiribati told Reuters. ‘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.’

His warnings are timely, with data now incontrovertibly pointing to a consistent rise in global temperatures. Last month’s record is all the more alarming because it was set outside of El Niño, which NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center declared finished in June.

‘July 2016 was the warmest month since modern record keeping began in 1880,’ said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt this week. ‘It appears almost a certainty that 2016 also will be the warmest year on record.’

Even more worryingly, the warmer global temperatures in July were most pronounced in the northern hemisphere, particularly near the Arctic region, which means more ice melt and a greater rise in sea levels.

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