RIO de JANEIRO – You probably know that the United States is about to win its 1,000th Olympic gold medal. Think about that for a minute – 1,000 GOLD medals. It could happen sometime this weekend.
As Thursday morning began in Rio, the great country of Fiji had won exactly zero Olympic medals.
Zero medals – no golds, no silvers, no bronzes. This hasn’t been because of a lack of effort. They love their sports in Fiji. They have sent a team to all but two summer Olympics since 1956. They have entered athletes in 69 different events – from archery to weightlifting, from boxing to judo – and to be blunt have not even close to winning a medal. They sent a 14-year-old swimmer. They sent a 56-year-old sailor. They even sent an entire family, the Philp family, to compete in sailing. Altogether Colin Sr., Colin Jr., Tony and David Philp competed at five different Olympics. The best they could manage was a 10th place finish.
Well, such is life in Fiji, an archipelago of some 330 islands that has a scattered population of almost a million people. This lack of population makes it tough – but let’s not kid anybody: 14 countries with population less than a million have won medals, and that includes Bermuda with a population of just 64,000 or so. The Bahamas, with roughly one third the population of Fiji, has won 11 medals.
So, yes, this has been a bit of a sore spot in Fiji. As mentioned, they do love their sports – this is a country that gave the world Hall of Fame golfer Vijay Singh, not to mention wrestler Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. “It is our time,” says a Fijian, or at least I assume he is a Fijian because his lips and face are painted blue, and he wears sunglasses and no shirt and seems and waves Fiji’s flag.
It is our time. This year, for the first time, the Olympics added rugby sevens. It is true that it was sort of sold as rugby’s RETURN to the Olympics – rugby was in the Games four times in the early part of the 20th century – but rugby sevens is a much different game from the full rugby union played in those days. Rugby sevens is a fast (very fast) game featuring seven players per side, seven minute halves and a hold-your-breath pace where a breakaway run is always like a second away. Think of that moment when Gale Sayers or Devin Hester has just caught a punt and there’s open field ahead. It’s like that more or less nonstop, with the added bonus of lots of laterals and gigantic and audacious people waiting to hit someone.
Rugby sevens, it turns out, is the official sport of Fiji.
Now: What does it mean to have a sport like rugby sevens as your official sport? Well, this obviously comes from a complete novice who was watching the sport for the first time – but even to an untrained eye, Fiji plays the sport in a fundamentally different way from every other country in the world.
When the U.S. played against Spain for ninth place – well, it’s better than 10th place – the game looked oddly familiar to my American sensibility. There are enough similarities between rugby sevens and football to follow along. The thrills for the U.S. came when the ball ended up in the hands of Carlin Isles, known as the fastest man in rugby. That’s not hype. The guy is a world-class sprinter. He watched a little bit of rugby on YouTube, thought “yeah, I could do that,” and packed up everything he had and drove to Colorado to learn how to play. When he gets the ball, it’s madness – he needs only the tiniest opening, the slightest crease, and he’s gone. Nobody on the pitch has any shot of catching him. Watching him feels like watching Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State when he scored a touchdown just about every three times he touched the ball.
Unfortunately for the U.S., the breathtaking run is only one part of the game. And while Isles is unquestionably thrilling to watch, the game also requires precise passing and great vision and extreme defense and – at least according to the apparent expert sitting next to me – Carlin Isles doesn’t quite have those tools. (“He’s a fun player,” the guy says, “but not yet a good player.” I don’t know if the guy has any idea what he’s talking about but he sounded authoritative). In any case, the U.S. beat Spain to secure ninth, and Isles had two stirring tries, and I thought I had a basic understanding of rugby sevens.
No. When Fiji took the pitch a couple of hours later, I realized that it’s a whole other game. Fiji doesn’t have any Carlin Isles. Instead they have a whole bunch of fast-moving trucks who weave with Harlem Globetrotter like precision and pass one-handed and behind the back and through the legs and stuff like that. While other teams try to go around, Fiji goes through. While other teams (for the most part) have relatively easy patterns to follow, Fiji moves on offense and defense with a complexity and artistry that says, very simply, “We grew up with this game. We know it better than anyone.”
Oh, Fiji was not always dominant in this tournament. The games are so short and quick paced that upsets are very possible. The U.S. gave Fii a game in the pool portion of the competition, pulling within five points in the final minute though not quite able to pull even. The Fiji-New Zealand quarterfinal was a brutal one, with Fiji’s great Osea Kolinisau, the team’s captain, scoring the go ahead try early in the second half and then Fiji’s titanic defense making it hold up.
“Before we came in,” Kolinisau told the Fijian press, “we told each other, ‘Let’s be strong. If you are weak, I’m going to help you. If I am weak, you help me.’ … It’s not an easy task to hold New Zealand back.”
In Friday’s semifinal against Japan, Fiji was dominant but unspectacular, winning 20-5. “You should see us when we play our best,” the Fijian fan told me as we headed toward the exit. The final against Great Britain was just three hours away.
And in that final – it was as if all the Olympic hunger of 60-plus years, all the desire to be on top of the world stage, all of it just flowed out from Fiji’s great players. Great Britain had a magnificent tournament. It never stood a chance. Kolinisau scored 57 seconds into the match and the party had begun. By halftime, it was 29-0. On Twitter, it was clear: celebrations in Fiji had already begun.
We do get pretty nearsighted come the Olympic Games. Right now, for instance, all-around gymnastics gold medalist Simone Biles is the biggest Olympic story in America, and she should be – she’s a marvel, a once-in-a-lifetime performer who can make your heart expolode with her overpowering athleticism. But you know what? Guarantee you right now she’s nowhere near the front page in England, not when Great Britain won gold and set an Olympic record in the men’s team sprint (and national hero Katherine Grainger won her fifth rowing medal). They’re not talking about her in China, not when the peerless Ma Long breezed to the table tennis singles gold and continued his four-year domination of the sport. She is not the story in the Czech Republic, not after Lukas Krpalek became the country’s first judo gold medalist.
And so on. I’ve said this before – people all around the world watch the Olympics, but we all watch a different Olympics, our own Olympics. On Friday alone, there was U.S. glory everywhere you looked. There was Biles doing remarkable things. There was Michael Phelps blowing our minds again. There was backstroker Ryan Murphy winning gold and then looking about as excited as a plumber who has just finished a job. There was Simone Manuel tying Canada’s Penny Oleksiak for Olympic gold and an Olympic record in in the 100-meter freestyle. There was Kayla Harrison winning her second consecutive judo gold medal in spectacular fashion. It’s easy to get spoiled.
And it’s easy to overlook just how much a moment can mean to a country like Fiji. As soon as their 43-7 blowout of Great Britain was complete, the players – just about all of them – broke down in tears. They were Olympic champions. And, you know, that’s just about the greatest feeling there is.