There's no question that the proliferation of modern convenience stores in Tahiti has hurt training for the race. You hardly ever see anybody running through town with dinner slung over his shoulder anymore. Some competitors, however, try to stay in shape by going on hunting trips into the interior. "Carrying the dead savage pigs out of the mountains is good training for this race," says a manager for one of the runners.
More and more of the top fruit carriers over the past several years have been firemen. That was true again last summer, when 31-year-old Dominique Paie won both of the Tiurai fruit races going away. Paie started competing in 1980 to overcome a lack of self-confidence, and he has won both races every year except 1984, when he won only one. "When I was a child I always felt inferior in everything, put down," Paie says. "I felt like I was in a shell, and I wanted to prove to myself I was able to do something. When I was in school, and even after I became an adult, I was very timid. The only way for me to get over my inferiority complex was to win at something." In 1974 Paie was working as a guard at the French nuclear testing facility on the island of Mururoa and saw a newspaper photograph of a man winning a fruit-carrying race. "When you are guarding a nuclear facility," the champion says, "you have a lot of time to read the newspaper."
There were two fruit-carrying races: the first, a 1,500-meter haul with a 110-pound load; the second, a night run, illuminated only by torches strapped to the runners' loads, 66 pounds of fruit and fire over 2,500 meters. In the darkness that preceded the start of the race, a voice on the public-address system cried out, "Allumez les flambeaux!"—which is roughly the fruit-carrying equivalent of "Gentlemen, start your engines." The runners rushed forward and picked up their flaming loads, and then went blazing off into the night, with fruit falling behind them as if someone had shaken a tree. As soon as they had passed, spectators scrambled from behind the barricades and retrieved the lost fruit, although it was not clear whether they were doing this for the safety of the runners, who would be returning the same way, or because they were hungry.
When Paie returned, he was 30 meters ahead of the next man. The fire had gone out in his fruit but not in his eyes. His dominance in the running events did not end there. Two days later at Pater Stadium, he ran an overpowering anchor leg for his team in the sand-carrying race. Sand carrying is a lot like fruit carrying, unless, of course, you happen to get hungry during the race. Another difference is that the 5,000-meter sand race involves a running exchange at the end of every 330-meter lap with a baton that weighs 66 pounds. Muff an exchange and you could end up in another time zone. The presence of five drummers thundering away right next to the exchange lanes, just waiting for a chance to deliver that one big rim shot, added a certain electricity to the race.
Paie, his cousin Freddy and Sandro Oopa earned 36,000 Pacific francs (the equivalent of about $275) for their sand-carrying victory, and the money was doled out to them right on the victory stand, Tahiti's refreshing answer to the shamateurism that plagues so many international sporting events. The second-place team jumped down off the trophy platform after receiving its money, threw the loot down on the track and divided it up right there on the finish line. It was a charming ceremony. During the presentation of awards, one member of the third-place team got a little carried away and started to knee-dance with the woman who was presenting him his trophy. She knee-danced right back.
Not all of the games ended on quite such a harmonious note. After the top 20 finishers in the javelin-throwing competition had received their awards, a scoring error was discovered and brought to the attention of officials by a group of angry men carrying spears. One contrite—and possibly nervous—scorekeeper ended the confrontation by making up the prize money to aggrieved finishers out of his own pocket.
The javelin throw was held in Fautaua Stadium in Pirae, not far from the cloud-mantled shoulders of Orohena, the 7,396-foot peak that looms over Tahiti. Unlike Olympic-style javelin throwing, in which the emphasis is on distance, in the South Pacific the feeling is that if you're going to throw a spear a long way, you might as well try to hit something with it. A coconut was fixed to a pole 10 meters high and 30 meters away from where the competitors stood. Lines were drawn on the coconut, dividing it into five equal sections—the top worth 10 points, the next eight and on down—and each man was allowed as many as 10 throws per round.
During the team javelin competition, spectators were invited to try their hand, and 15 of them did, taking a total of 150 shots without once coming near the coconut. Yet, at the end of each round of competition, the coconut husk was so thick with metal-tipped quills it looked like a Polynesian porcupine. Each competitor clutched the six-foot-long, 13-oz. javelin with a single finger resting on the back tip and then lofted it underhanded in a great arc—half an arc if his hand was steady and his aim good. The soft quivering purau-wood shafts often crossed each other in midair as they flew toward the target before striking the coconut with satisfying thhhuunks. The competition for top individual honors stayed close for six rounds, and then a former spearfisher named Michel Maro practically lobotomized the coconut with three blades that sliced cleanly through the top, which gave him three 10s for the round. Maro finished with 68 points, 22 points better than the runner-up.
With the conclusion of the javelin throw, the festival had reached its midway point, and I was getting restless to see some of the other Society Islands. The next day I left for a short visit to the island of Moorea, only an hour's boat ride from the Papeete harbor, and the place where many Tahitians go on weekends, perhaps to escape the congestion of downtown Papeete, where there seems to be more cars than streets. The traffic comes as a rude shock to most visitors to Tahiti, especially since the island is basically so easygoing. The government is trying to regulate auto imports more stringently, but a lot of old hands in Tahiti feel paradise may already be lost.
The change started back in 1960, around the time that M-G-M filmed its remake of Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti. On his first trip to the island, the Mutiny's location scout had to fly from Los Angeles to Hawaii, hop a prop plane to Bora Bora and catch a seaplane for Tahiti. But even then, a large airport capable of handling overseas flights was under construction near Papeete. "Before we left Tahiti, months later, a jet strip was open," says Jimmy Taylor, 66, who married a local woman and retired to Tahiti after serving as Bounty's wardrobe master. "That was the beginning of the end. Now it's gotten so commercialized it looks like Long Beach. The island paradise that you associate with Tahiti just doesn't exist here anymore."