The lack of a medal thus far is no great surprise or embarrassment. Fiji has a population a fraction over 900,000. An archipelago of more than 300 islands, only a third of which are inhabitable, the two major islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu contain the bulk of the inhabitants.
The tiny Melanesian nation has sent over athletes to compete in, among other things, boxing, athletics, judo and weightlifting, but it is the introduction of rugby sevens to the Olympic roster that is the real cause of excitement.
For the uninitiated, rugby sevens is a shorter, faster version of the 15-man game. Played on exactly the same size pitch as rugby, it features seven players per side, and each half lasts for seven minutes, hence ‘sevens’. It is a game full of offloads, deft handling, pace and power. And make no mistake, Fiji loves it.
Despite the country’s size, small pool of talent and relative isolation, Fiji consistently punches above its weight in the sport it adores. Understandably, their budget is tiny and training facilities are limited. Their place on the globe also leaves them vulnerable to greater setbacks.
While the climate is warm all year round, it is not uncommon for the islands to experience cyclones. In February 2016, a category five tropical cyclone ripped through tens of thousands of homes, killing 44 people and causing US$1billion in damage. Two of the players were left homeless and yet four days later the team was back in training.
The coach is Ben Ryan, an Englishman and club rugby player who spent five years coaching England’s sevens side before joining up with Fiji in 2013. When the team headed to Rio he commented that his players had been “so consumed by this one journey that we’re taking at the moment that sometimes you can’t remember what day it is.”
The ‘journey’ that Fiji are on could end in glory – they are a side of genuine pedigree. The current format of the World Rugby Sevens Series has been played every year since 1999, touring the world each season. New Zealand have dominated since its inception, crowned champions on 12 occasions, but Fiji are the current back-to-back champions. They have won three times in total and (putting our medal hats on) have only finished lower than third on five occasions.
But Fiji don’t just win, they win well. The brand of rugby that the side play has become the benchmark for attractive, fluid and entertaining sport, a distinct style that has been honed since childhood.
Their former captain, Waisale Serevi, is regarded by most as the greatest player to ever play the sport, an athlete with ‘a streak of imagination that separated him from anyone else’. He is a veteran of four Rugby World Cup Sevens (1993, 1997, 2001, and 2005), winning the tournament in 1997 and 2005, and is the competition’s overall top points scorer with 297 points.
As the game has grown on the world stage over the past 20 years, Serevi has been the poster boy. Now nearly ten years since his retirement, his country have a chance to showcase the thing that they do best.
While the inclusion of new sports into the Olympic program is often cause for debate, the prospect that Fiji can show the world how their sport is played, winning their country’s first ever Olympic medal in the process, is as attractive as the rugby that they play.