When Fiji’s men’s sevens team beat New Zealand to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday, the entire nation celebrated.
The victory could not have come at a better time. Fiji is in the grip of a deadly second outbreak of Covid-19, in addition to a possible political crisis over controversial native lands legislation.
These problems, including threats of unrest in a country that experienced four coups between 1987 and 2006, were forgotten as the final of the Games approached.
Like the rest of the population, who was glued to their televisions, I saw the start with a plate of kava with my family.
During the national anthem, tears ran down the faces of the players, who had not seen their families for months. The second Covid-19 outbreak in Fiji, which began in April, had forced players to train under a strict self-imposed lockdown.
The weight of the country was on the shoulders of the players. They were aware of the dire 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 under 1 million in the past four months. The official total death toll is 238.
But the Fijians forgot their troubles for a while to focus on the Fiji-New Zealand final, a duel between the two arch-rivals. We hate losing to the All Blacks and we love rubbing ourselves when we win. A championship win is never really satisfying unless we beat New Zealand along the way.
Captain Seremaia “Jerry” Tuwai and his team played like possessed men, setting aside some nervous moments from the first half for a dominant 27-12 victory.
For me personally, it was a special emotion. As a sports reporter until last year, he had covered the progress of this team and was familiar with the coach and the players, whose movements were followed by the media.
Most of the players come from humble origins and the team prepares for international competitions with basic resources compared to rivals such as Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain.
Tuwai, for example, hails from one of the most densely populated areas in Fiji. He honed his skills in a rough cul-de-sac playing barefoot with the neighborhood kids. A plastic bottle used to be the ball. Rising star Asaeli Tuivuaka barely had time to play as a teenager while growing yaqona (kava) to support his family.
The leap from Fiji’s yaqona slums and gardens to the Tokyo Olympic stadium was huge for Fijians. But Fiji’s performance throughout the Games captured the world’s imagination. Some described the final as “the time of the Olympics” due to the overwhelming odds the Fijians overcame to win gold.
When the final whistle sounded, fireworks erupted in Suva and some other parts of the country. In In an instant, the streets were filled with men, women, and children of all ages. Nobody cared about the daily curfew from 6:00 pm to 4:00 am, as they celebrated with abandon.
Health Secretary James Fong said the Covid-19 emergency hotlines remained silent during the game “for the first time in weeks.”
Four days after the men’s victory, the country’s women’s team, known as Fijiana, beat Great Britain 21-12 to claim a bronze medal.
Women’s rugby has gotten off to an auspicious start in Fiji in 2006, often playing demonstration matches before men’s games, and players are generally greeted with cat yelling, laughter and boos. In local tournaments, women’s competitions are discarded as filler events and are only included to mark boxes or to satisfy sponsors.
If the Fiji men’s team had few resources, the situation would be much worse for the women. But with their brave Olympic performance, the women earned the respect of the country. Social media is full of praise and it’s moving stories on how players had to complete housework during the day and train late into the night to stay fit and ready for the game. Despite the impossible odds, public expectations remained high and the team would be harshly criticized 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 in sport. There are strong calls for greater support for women’s rugby in Fiji and for the players themselves to be fairly rewarded. People have been won over by the team’s fearless and never-dying attitude despite operating with threadbare resources and always playing second to men.
Before Tokyo, some commentators on social media 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 caught in the shadow of men. They will enrich seven-game rugby in Fiji, where it is more than just a sport.
Some call it an obsession, if not an addiction. Others quite cynically call it the opium of the Fiji masses, a distraction from the country’s bigger problems.
However, it cannot be denied that gambling is an important unifying force in a country plagued by ethnic tensions since independence in 1970.
Fiji’s first gold medal in Rio 2016 paralyzed the country. A national holiday was declared and the central bank printed a new $ 7 coin to honor the players and their English coach, Ben Ryan.
A full-scale celebration in times of Covid seems unlikely in the short term, but plans are underway to adequately reward the men’s and women’s teams. Welsh coach Gareth Baber was promised a piece of land, and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama told Parliament that he had “earned a house in Fiji.”
And for those of us watching at home, as our healthcare system is collapsing under the weight of Covid cases, an economy ruined by the pandemic, and as we grapple with fears of political instability, it was a moment of hope and a reminder. of what they are capable of.