Fiji makes history, wins sevens gold at Rio Olympics after challenging 3-year journey

Fiji makes history, wins sevens gold at Rio Olympics after challenging 3-year journey

Fiji makes history, wins sevens gold at Rio Olympics after challenging 3-year journey

Written by Staff Writer

20 Aug, 2016 | 6:54 am

Fiji have triumphed with a historic gold at the Rio Olympics, earning the country its first ever medal at the Games and marking the Pacific islanders as the first Olympic men’s sevens champions.

The breathtaking win by the Fijians against Great Britain in the final of the inaugural tournament, which saw them score a 43-7 victory, completes a long and challenging three years for the team and head coach Ben Ryan.

Ryan was brought in on September 2013 by Fiji to salvage a team that had struggled with consistency since the introduction of the world sevens series in 1999, romping through one tournament only to crash out early in the next.

Coming away from coaching the England sevens side for six years, Ryan joined the Fijians at perhaps the worst possible time to have made the switch.

“I was paying for petrol to get the team to training, went unpaid for half a year,” Ryan told Reuters on Thursday (August 18).

The Fijian Rugby Union encountered financial difficulties after World Rugby cut off funding. There was no national training centre, no sponsorship.

“All these things I didn’t know until I stepped on the island and they gave me all this wonderful news,” he said. “But we stuck with it and decided that this was going to be a great challenge but a greater reward if we got it right.”

Ryan got to work on rectifying a system that meant there were no clear pathways to the national side, no proper nutritional planning or strength and conditioning programmes.

On the field, a number of players had signed for overseas clubs and were unavailable for sevens selection.

He brought in a strength and conditioning coach, changed the players’ nutrition away from their traditional high carbohydrate, high sugar diets, and introduced specialist skills coaches and conducted more video analysis.

“We had the talent, no doubt about it, it is a national sport and everyone plays rugby sevens in the country and they are fanatical about it. So those two elements we already had, but we didn’t have any structure,” he says, recalling his first months on the job.

Since then, the Fijians have won the last two World Series and in Rio they produced a string of sevens masterclasses, going through the tournament unbeaten to claim their country’s first Olympic medal on August 11th at the Deodoro Stadium.

Their victory is evidence of the rediscovery of that flair, from a country that has produced some of the greatest players ever to have played the shortened version of the game, such as Waisale Serevi and William Ryder.

Team captain Osea Kolinisau, who scored the first try with a burst down the left wing, said he was still struggling to digest the fact he was an Olympic champion.

“I never dreamt of this, never in my wildest dreams, the only closest thing to the Olympics I get to is watching on the TV and then going to the playground with friends and pretending who are you going to be? You be from Jamaica, you be (Usain) Bolt, or we go to the pools and just jump in the water and say ‘oh I will be Michael Phelps, I’ll be Ian Thorpe,” said Kolinisau, wearing his gold medal around his neck.

“We never dreamt that we were going to go to the Olympics. That was the closest that we were going to get to the Olympics – just imitating the superstars of the sports,” he added, describing winning the medal as a “surreal” feeling.

The team appeared keen to engage with young people in Rio during their winning trip, on Wednesday (August 17) the Fijians took to the beach to play with and train young children living in favelas in the city.

Kolinisau said some players in the Olympic team had similar backgrounds to the children they met on the beach and sports could be a way out for many of them.

“Rugby has a very unique culture and playing with children from Brazil, from the favelas at the beach – it just brings out a joy in you. It shows me I can relate to them, and the boys relate to the children in Brazil we started off … we didn’t have very much back home, we started off like most of them – having nothing,” said Kolinisau.

“Rugby gave us a way out, and yesterday I saw a lot of talent and skills. And I told the boys – maybe some of these gingas gonna represent Brazil in 2020 in Tokyo,” he added, using a term that refers largely to the Brazilian way of doing things, originating from capoeira.

“I wanna tell people that wherever you go rugby can help you get out of your situation. Like me and Jerry (Tuwai) here, you know, we are still at the Olympics and the dream is still going on right now. I don’t know, I think I will wake up tomorrow and someone will pinch me and say ‘hey, you were dreaming, you didn’t win anything’. But I wake up and I open my drawer and I look and see I still have the medal, I really did get the gold medal in Rio!” said Kolinisau.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has vowed to hold a huge celebration when the men return home. With a population of around 900,000, the players have become household names. Coach Ryan, who is also a popular figure in Fiji, has had babies named in his honour and pop songs written about him in the past.

But the famous coach is out of contract after the Olympics and has says he will take a break before deciding on his next challenge.

“There is always the decision you have to make as a coach when to leave a programme. It is always nice to leave it on your terms, because you don’t always get that opportunity,” he said.

“Sometimes you need to go out on a high and then look for your next challenge, I’ve always been about challenges. I have no idea where the next one will take me but, it would be hard to match what’s just happened in the last three years.”

In the last three years the face of the game has changed for Fiji; the players are now centrally contracted, while a crowd-funded national training centre has been built in Pacific Harbour, about an hour southwest of the capital Suva.

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