An Olympic Weightlifter Is Losing His Home to Climate Change

Weightlifter David Katoatau has won the small Pacific nation of Kiribati some of its only athletic honors. With scientists projecting that his country will soon be underwater, he’s trying to capture the world’s attention about climate change.

by Andrew Lewis
Dec 23 2015, 4:20pm

Courtesy the Oceania Weightlifting Federation

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At 5:30 PM on Thanksgiving Day, thirty-one-year-old David Katoatau walked onto the stage at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, and smiled at his fans. There were only eight of them, perhaps because it was dinnertime during the country's most food-centric holiday, but also maybe because David was competing at the International Weightlifting Federation World Championship in Class C, the lowest-ranked group in the 105-kilogram (231-pound) division. Standing five feet, five inches, David, who is from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, was dwarfed by his opponents, most of them Eastern European. He continued smiling as the American MC carefully butchered everyone's names.

David was up first. In Olympic weightlifting, athletes must execute two overhead lifts, with three attempts for each: the snatch, which is done in one smooth motion, and the clean and jerk, with two movements separated by a short rest of the barbell across the chest. The best snatch David could muster was 145 kilos—the worst in Class C. But David isn't known for his snatch; it's his clean and jerk that's dangerous. His 200- and 205-kilo lifts were good enough to catapult him into the lead. If he could pull off his last attempt of 208 kilos, his three-lift total would bump him out of last place at the championships. It would also be a career best—than anything he's done at the Olympics, which he made in 2008 and 2012; better, even, than his performance at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, when he won Kiribati's first-ever gold medal.

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It was the perfect setting to watch David break his own clean and jerk record, not so much for the convention center's ambiance as for the weather outside: at 79 degrees, a warmer than average November day for Texas. The past few months have seen historically mild weather across much of the US, in fact, and while each report of a "warmest on record" season draws some attention here, the Kiribati weightlifter has felt the effects of climate change far more acutely.

David and his family live on Tarawa, Kiribati's most populated atoll and its capital city; its highest point is just 10 feet above sea level. The government fears that rising seas will force the entire population of 100,000 to migrate en mass within the next 30 years. Already, David has watched the ocean take the traditional thatch-and-pole hut, called a tebuia, that he built last year with his meager weightlifting salary; it was washed away in what's known locally as a king tide. In August, with the help of his long-time coach, an Italian-Australian named Paul Coffa, David wrote an open letter to basically the entire world, pleading for people to recognize what is happening not just to Kiribati but to all low-lying Pacific Island nations.

"I achieved my dream of participating in the Olympic Games in 2008/2012 and hopefully next year I will compete in the Rio Olympics," David wrote. "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?"

While David was competing in Houston, delegates from 195 nations had begun to filter into Paris for COP 21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Among the delegates was Kiribati President Anote Tong, the only man more famous in Kiribati than David Katoatau. Like David, Tong has been asking the world—specifically, large nations like the U.S., Australia, and China—to scale back their massive carbon emissions, one of the main triggers of sea level rise.

"Whatever happens in Paris we are already doomed," Tong said in an interview weeks before the climate talks began. "The global community has a duty to help those of us who are already a victim of this climate change, because if that does not happen then what's the meaning of humanity?"

David after winning a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Courtesy the Oceania Weightlifting Federation

The night before David was to lift in the Class C event, I joined him, Coffa and a few other South Pacific lifters who Coffa coaches at the Starbucks in the lobby of the Hilton Americas-Houston. The athletes spend most of the year at the Oceania Weightlifting Institute in New Caledonia, where they live and train together, but everyone had stories from home of unusually strong storms, higher than normal king tides, and communities that have relocated to higher elevations. While we talked and drank coffee, the Fijian lifter Joe Vueti received news that a typically dry street in Fiji's capital, Suva, had been flooded by a high tide earlier that day. Coffa and the others shrugged: Fiji, with its relatively ample areas of higher elevation, is at least expected to survive the century. With scientists estimating a rise in sea levels anywhere from one to six feet by 2100, many South Pacific island nations will not be so lucky.

President Tong openly acknowledges that relocating Kiribati's entire population, while a last resort, may one day be the country's only option; the government has purchased 6,000 acres of land on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu in preparation. While there are people who believe that the damage can be undone—that humans can somehow reverse the world's ice sheets melting into the oceans—the athletes in Houston appeared to accept the reality of a looming migration. Luisa Fatiaki Taitapu Peters, a 22-year-old from the Cook Islands, joked with the American Samoan Tanumafili Malietoa Jungblut about his having a U.S. passport. "Tanu will have no problem finding a country," she laughed.

Maybe it's because he's a decade older than the others, or because Kiribati is in more immediate danger than the Cook Islands and American Samoa, but David is not quite as blasé about the future. Talk of the rising sea causes his brow to furrow and his dark brown eyes to fix into a hard glare. On a regular basis now, David told me, his father wakes up in the middle of the night to the cool press of the ocean, as the saltwater rises through the elevated floor of his tebuia.

Because of David's success at the Commonwealth Games last year, the sport of weightlifting is exploding in Kiribati. When he is home, he talks to local students about lifting and climate change. "The kids see weightlifting as a way out of the country," David told me. When I asked where he would like to migrate, he quickly said New Zealand, even though he has never been there. "Are you sure?" Coffa asked. "Do you know how cold it is there?" David rubbed his tree trunk-like biceps, as if warming them up. He hadn't thought about the cold. Most of his early years as a weightlifter were spent training in the mornings under the shade of a coconut tree—when the sun rises in Kiribati, the barbell gets too hot to touch.

The Hilton Americas lobby was swarming with enormous humans, most of them dressed in colorful jumpsuits embroidered with the names of their countries. In a glance, I saw Russia, China, and the U.S.—nations with the resources to consistently generate Olympic athletes. Coffa told me to look around. "Ninety-nine percent of the people here have no idea where Kiribati, or these other Pacific islands, are," he said.

The next day, an hour before David's event, I decided to test Coffa's claim.

I asked a Moldovan lifter standing on a street corner if he'd ever heard of Kiribati. "No." His teammates also shook their heads. Irritated by my question, the lifter countered, "Have you heard of Moldova?"

Outside the Hilton Americas, I talked to a guy waiting to catch a cab. He'd been a competitive lifter in the 1980s, and had left his wife in Florida over the holiday to visit Houston for the IWF Championship. He seemed to know the sport of weightlifting inside out, but when I asked about Kiribati and David, he was stumped. "Huh," he said. "You'd think I would have."

David's open letter to the world about climate change this summer went unrecognized, too, with scarcely any mention in the global weightlifting community or the media.

Courtesy the Oceania Weightlifting Federation

Inside the convention center, I sat with David's eight fans as they watched the championship's procession of demure, giant men. They walked on and off the stage with deadly serious stares; most scowled at the barbell for long moments, and even growled, before lifting and dropping the nearly quarter-ton loads on the stage, which shook the entire arena. Save for the odd silent prayer to the ceiling, the athletes hardly celebrated.

While waiting for David's final lift, the 208-kilo clean and jerk attempt, Marie-Josée Arès-Pilon, a Canadian lifter who has trained at the Oceania Weightlifting Institute, told me about her first trip to the Pacific, for the 2006 Commonwealth Championships in Samoa. In the training hall for the event, she noticed a young guy lifting barefoot. It was David. At first, she thought he'd lost his shoes, which are required in competition, but David wasn't yet accustomed to lifting with shoes. Under the coconut trees in Kiribati, he had always trained barefoot. "Someone gave him shoes for the competition, but he couldn't lift as much with them on," Arès-Pilon said with a laugh.

Arès-Pilon sat with her coach and the rest of David's small fan group, which comprised the DeBoer family. Lulu DeBoer, a young American filmmaker whose mother is from Kiribati had just returned from Kiribati, where she was working on a documentary about her disappearing heritage. She and her family had eschewed Thanksgiving dinner to come watch David. They cheered and waved the Kiribati flag, which features the sea, the rising sun, and a frigate bird—but no land.

Finally, David stepped on the stage. He wasted no time and executed a perfect clean—the first portion of the lift—but when he went for the jerk, he barely got the 208 kilos over his head before his stout legs began to buckle. The barbell and David crashed to the platform, and the 3,600-seat theater shuddered. The drone of the fault buzzer echoed across the empty seats.

Even with the failed attempt at 208 kilos, David's clean and jerk performance in Houston was his best since the Commonwealth Games, and enough to bump him to eleventh overall in the Class C, 105-kilo division. Beaming, David stood up, waved at Lulu and her family, and then shuffled off stage. The small crowd joined the DeBoers and Arès-Pilon in cheering him on. Arès-Pilon leaned over and said, "Weightlifting needs more Davids."

As David walked offstage, I thought about something Coffa had said at the Starbucks the night before, when I asked about David's chances of taking home another medal for Kiribati, either here at the IWF Championship, which is an Olympic qualifying event, or the Games in Rio next year.

"It's not about the gold medal, because these kids can't win an Olympic gold medal," he said. "For David, just the fact that he's carrying the Kiribati flag at the opening ceremony and the world is seeing it, that's what matters. It's about just being there."