Just when the nation is looking for heroes, for a unifying force that’s above the political fray, one emerges. Just when we need it most, someone shows us that disadvantage is no barrier to achieving success. Iliesa Delana isn’t exactly the hero from central casting. For a start, he has only one leg. But no-one who witnessed his arrival back in the country was left in any doubt that this gold medal winner is a hero for our times. He might have one leg but he has Fiji’s biggest heart. And he has brought the country together in a way that we could have scarcely hoped for, let alone believed.
Soon after his Air Pacific Boeing 737 passed under a water spout salute from two airport fire trucks and came to a halt, Iliesa emerged immaculately clad in a tailored dark jacket and sulu. He seemed genuinely taken aback by the size of the welcome that awaited him. There to greet him was the Minister for Sport, Viliame Naupoto, Iliesa’s beaming sponsors and a brass band. Plus all the formal sense of occasion that the Government’s protocol section can muster. Yet it was the wave of excitement that spread through the welcoming crowd of ordinary people that would have struck Iliesa the most. As he glided on his crutches from the aircraft down the overhead concourse, airport workers spilled out onto the tarmac, craning their necks upwards to get a better view. And as he headed for the Government’s VIP lounge – surely a Very Important Person if ever there was one – the girls who man the airport lounges left their desks and waited delightedly for him to pass.
I have been a journalist for almost 40 years. And I can say that few news conferences I have ever attended were as genuinely impressive as the one for Iliesa Delana. This wasn’t the sports hero we’re used to seeing, the pumped up celebrity who can’t hide how pleased they are with themselves and their achievement. Iliesa slipped into his seat with exemplary modesty, looking for all the world as if he didn’t deserve to be there. It was with the customary half bowed posture of an i’taukei who has been reared all his life in one of the most cherished traditions of the vanua – to be modest when acclaimed, to lower one’s head when others praise you. Whatever his stupendous achievement on the sports field, this guy has been well brought up and is a credit to his family, his mataqali and the vanua as a whole.. Every Fijian – whatever their racial background – admires this in an age of false “Big Brother” celebrity and the wannabe, “look at me” culture of the viavialevu.
One of the journalists present asked: “Do you realise the reception that awaits you?” Iliesa simply said he was humbled by all the fuss and thanked the Government, his sponsors and the people of Fiji who willed him on. Journalists are a cynical mob by nature but you could sense the barometer of respect in the VIP room blowing off the scale. Ilisea spoke beautifully, economically and with quiet dignity. There weren’t that many questions because he covered every base in just a handful. Then he cut a special celebratory cake, everyone applauded and it was over. And Fiji’s new sporting hero glided out on his crutches into the airport’s public areas to a rapturous reception from hundreds of excited onlookers. The public areas were so clogged that airline workers worried about getting overseas passengers on their flights.
Don’t just watch Iliesa on television. Get out and see him in the flesh. For a start, he’s much more handsome than he appears on TV. But parents, take your children down to the public celebrations to see a real hero, not just a passing celebrity but a man who is a genuine role model, whose life story is an inspiration to all our young people. I promise you that your kids will never forget it.
How Iliesa Delana’s birth mother must have shed tears of despair when her precious son lost his leg in a bus accident at the age of three. And how his aunty – who raised him after the death of his mother – must have cried tears of joy all these years later when the news reached her – fresh from her teitei – that after all that tragedy, he had brought 80-thousand people to their feet as he cleared the hurdle in the Olympic stadium half a world away. Many of his fellow citizens – especially the more sentimental – also shed a tear or two, bursting with pride at the television images of Iliesa perched on his crutches waving our national flag. It was truly an unforgettable sight.
On Thursday, Ilesa’s family joins him in Suva as the nation pays tribute to his wonderful achievement. They will doubtless be proudest of all. But all Fijians are rejoicing, every single one of us. Because for once – thanks to this superb athlete – we are united. One nation working together against the odds.