When the Fijian men’s sevens team beat New Zealand to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday, the entire nation celebrated.
These problems, including threats of unrest in a country that experienced four coups between 1987 and 2006, were forgotten as the Games’ final approached.
Like the rest of the population, who were glued to their TV sets, I watched the kick-off over a bowl of kava with my family.
During the national anthem, tears streamed down the faces of the players, who hadn’t seen their families for months. Fiji’s second Covid-19 outbreak, which started in April, had forced the players to train under a strict self-imposed lockdown.
A championship victory is never truly satisfying unless we beat New Zealand along the way
The weight of the country was on the players’ shoulders. They were aware of the grim situation at home. Fiji’s Covid infection rate is the highest in the world. The country has had more than 27,000 cases out of a population of just less than one million in the past four months. The official overall death toll is 238.
But Fijians forgot their problems for a while to focus on the Fiji-New Zealand final, a nail-biting affair between the two arch rivals. We hate losing to the All Blacks and love to rub it in when we win. A championship victory is never truly satisfying unless we beat New Zealand along the way.
Captain Seremaia “Jerry” Tuwai and his team played like men possessed, brushing aside a few nervy first-half moments for a dominant 27-12 win.
For me, personally, it was a particular thrill. As a sports reporter until last year, I had covered this team’s progress, and was familiar with the coach and players, whose every move was followed by the media.
Most players come from humble beginnings and the team prepares for international competitions with barebones resources compared with rivals such as Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain.
Tuwai, for instance, comes from one of the most densely populated areas in Fiji. He honed his skills in a rough cul-de-sac playing barefooted with the neighbourhood kids. A plastic bottle usually served as the ball. Breakout star Asaeli Tuivuaka barely had time to play as a teenager while farming yaqona (kava) to support his family.
The leap from the shanty towns and yaqona gardens of Fiji to the Olympic stadium of Tokyo was huge for the Fijians. But Fiji’s performance throughout the Games captured the world’s imagination. Some described the final as “the moment of the Olympics” because of the overwhelming odds the Fijians overcame to win gold.
When the final whistle blew, fireworks erupted in Suva and a few other parts of the country. In an instant, the streets were filled with men, women and children of all ages. No one cared about the daily 6pm-4am curfew, as they celebrated with abandon.
Health Secretary James Fong said the emergency Covid-19 hotlines went quiet for the duration of the game “for the first time in weeks.”
Four days after the men’s win, the country’s women’s team, known as the Fijiana, beat Great Britain 21-12 to claim a bronze medal.
Women’s rugby has had a less than auspicious start in Fiji in 2006, often playing demonstration matches before the men’s games, with the players usually greeted with cat-calls, laughter and jeers. At local tournaments, the women’s competitions are dismissed as filler events and only included to tick boxes or to satisfy sponsors.
If the Fiji men’s team were under-resourced, the situation is much worse for the women. But with their gutsy Olympic performance, the women won the respect of the country. Social media is full of praise and poignant stories about how the players had to complete household chores during the day and train late into the night to stay fit and match-ready. Despite the impossible odds, the public’s expectations remained high and the team would be harshly criticised after every defeat.
But the situation is changing. From being seen as a joke, the team is now considered a shining example of what women and girls have always been capable of achieving in sports. There are strong calls for more support for women’s rugby in Fiji and for the players themselves to be justly rewarded. People have been won over by the team’s gutsy, never-say-die attitude despite operating on threadbare resources and always playing second-fiddle to the men.
Some call it an obsession, if not an addiction. Others call it Fiji’s opiate of the masses
Before Tokyo, some social media commentators said they never used to watch the women play but only waited for the men’s team. But after witnessing Fijiana’s latest performance, they can’t wait to see them on the field again.
These women have inspired an entire nation, no longer trapped in the shadow of the men. They will enrich sevens rugby in Fiji, where it is more than just a sport.
Some call it an obsession, if not an addiction. Others rather cynically call it Fiji’s opiate of the masses – a distraction from the country’s bigger problems.
However, there is no denying that the game is a major uniting force in a country fraught with ethnic tensions since independence in 1970.
Fiji’s first gold medal win in Rio 2016 brought the country to a standstill. A national holiday was declared and the central bank printed new $7 currency to honour the players and their English coach, Ben Ryan.
Such a wide-scale celebration in Covid times seems unlikely anytime soon, but plans are afoot to adequately reward the men’s and women’s teams. Welsh coach Gareth Baber has been promised a piece of land, with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama telling Parliament he had “earned a home in Fiji.”
And for those of us watching at home, while our health system is buckling under the weight of Covid cases, an economy wrecked by the pandemic and as we face down fears of political instability, it was a moment of hope and a reminder of what we are capable of.