Rio 2016: Will Fiji Win Its First Ever Medal in This New Olympic Sport?

Fiji Olympic rugby sevens team
The Fiji Olympic rugby sevens team train at Rosslyn park rugby ground in West London. Andy Hooper for Newsweek

On the morning of October 9, 2009, 89 members of the International Olympic Committee sat in a conference center in Copenhagen. The committee members, who shape policy at the IOC, had come together in the Danish capital to make a decision about an Olympic Games that was then seven years in the future. Nearly 10,000 miles away, people across the 110 inhabited islands of the Pacific archipelago nation of Fiji, population 900,000, anxiously awaited the committee's verdict. Would it rule that rugby sevens—regular rugby's faster, more elegant, more explosive cousin—belonged at the 2016 Rio Olympics?

The reasons for adding a sport to the Olympics vary: Sometimes a sport is already popular in the host country; sometimes a sport is just catching on but has potential for worldwide growth; sometimes its lobbyists are particularly persuasive. Rugby sevens, its supporters and advocates knew, was growing in popularity in Brazil and Latin America, and its worldwide television audience was also on the rise. They also knew Jacques Rogge, then the IOC president, was a former Belgian international rugby player and a fan of the game. They figured it had a good shot.

The news was expected by noon, local time, but haggling delayed the vote. Finally, about an hour late, Rogge made the announcement: Sevens was in. In Fiji, notice spread via radio, TV and word-of-mouth. "Everyone was saying, 'Well, there will be new players coming up now. Maybe it could be us in the Olympics,'" says Vili Navia, a teenager at the time who went on to play professional rugby in New Zealand and eventually settled in England. "There was an excitement that you might know people who were going to be playing, but also for the country as a whole that we might get an opportunity to have a gold on the world stage."

Rugby players of Fiji playing New Zealand
Rugby players of Fiji (white) and New Zealand compete during the final of the Hong Kong Seven 2015 in Hong Kong, China, 29 March 2015. AP

Fiji has competed in the Olympics since 1956, but, with two exceptions, its athletes have appeared as wild cards, not qualifiers. The country's most successful Olympian is Maria Liku, who competed in the women's under-63-kilogram weightlifting category at London 2012. She came in eighth. This year, that could change. The Fiji tourism board estimates that 80,000 Fijians play rugby—around 10 percent of the population. In 15-a-side rugby, Fiji ranks 10th in the world. In sevens, Fiji is ranked first.

Fijians know their window for winning Olympic gold could be slim; the IOC has promised sevens a second outing at Tokyo 2020—so this isn't Fiji's only chance—but the committee could decide to drop sevens from the 2024 Games. When Fiji's sevens team brought home its second consecutive World Rugby Sevens Series title in May of this year, thousands of people gathered to celebrate on the waterfront in Suva, the capital. An Olympic gold would probably turn the whole country into a party zone.

Fit for Purpose

Modern rugby, in its best-known 15-a-side format, has become a game characterized by the physical strength of its players. Thirty years ago, many rugby players were wiry, lithe runners. These days, even the players who perform the same fast-running roles—the backs—are walls of muscle. And as players have become bigger, fitter and faster, the importance of the "breakdown"—the scrap for the ball on the turf—has increased exponentially. International rugby games are now often gladiatorial rather than exhibitions of swerving, feint and subtlety. You have to go to YouTube for that version of rugby.

Sevens is something of a throwback to the rugby of old. Pace and a sense for where space could open up are crucial. The 280-pound prop forwards of the 15-man game have no place in sevens. With only seven players on the field, there's no place for the man-beasts who pile against one another in a bid to wrest the ball back or drive it forward a few feet. Sevens players are fast and skilled. The games last only seven minutes per half—compared with the 40-minute halves of 15s rugby—and feature few stoppages. With half the number of players having to cover a pitch of the same size in multiple games a day, sevens demands extreme levels of fitness. "It's absolutely horrendous, the demands these players put on their bodies," says Brian O'Driscoll, the Irish 15-a-side icon who now works as a brand ambassador for HSBC, which sponsors the World Series. "Not only from an aerobic point of view but with the contact too."

The Fiji rugby sevens team
By winning the 2015 World Series, the Fiji team earned an automatic place in the Olympics. Andy Hooper for Newsweek

The sport caught on in Fiji in the late 1970s. Before then, the country focused on regular rugby and had remained a second-tier team. In 1977, the national 15-a-side team scored a miraculous victory that further boosted interest in rugby, which was already the country's favorite sport. "As I was growing up, one afternoon everybody was shouting, and they were happy," says Waisale Serevi, a former captain of the country's sevens team, who was just 9 years old at the time. "I asked my mum and dad why, and she said, 'Fiji has just beaten the British Lions.'" The British Lions are an occasional team made up of the best players from the national sides of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England; they come together every four years to tour countries in the Southern Hemisphere, home to the three strongest rugby nations—Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

For many Fijians who were too slight or short to compete at the top level in 15s, sevens provided an opportunity to shine. Sevens was already very popular, and Fiji was becoming a force in the international arena, but that same year, another big win helped push the country firmly in the direction of sevens rather than 15s, explains Fred Wesley, editor-in-chief of The Fiji Times newspaper. In 1976, Hong Kong hosted a new Pan-Asian sevens tournament. All the big national teams came. Fiji won in 1977, repeating the next year and then in 1980. It now has the most titles of any country, with a total of 16. "The Hong Kong Sevens made me want to try the sport because of my size," says Serevi, who is 5-foot-7.

Rugby players of Fiji celebrate after defeating New Zealand
Rugby players of Fiji celebrate after defeating New Zealand and winning the Hong Kong Seven 2015 in Hong Kong, on March 29, 2015. AP

There is no one reason sevens is so big in Fiji. Ben Ryan, Fiji's English coach, believes the game fits with what he perceives to be the Fijian personality. "The unstructured aspect, the small-sided nature took hold of the nation perhaps a bit better than the technical aspect needed in 15s," says Ryan, who relocated from London to the South Pacific three years ago. "It's a bit like the Pacific Island weather—blue skies and blue seas, then suddenly bang! A cyclone hits."

The maul and its sister, the ruck, form two of the 15-man game's crucial elements. In 15s, contact is inevitable and even encouraged. Navia says he grew up playing on gravel, due to the paucity of playing fields. No kid wants to fall down or be tackled on that. So Fijian children learn to evade, sevens-style, rather than blast their opponents away, which is more the 15-a-side way. " Barefoot, we had a lot of injuries," Osea Kolinisau, who will captain Fiji in Rio, tells Newsweek . "But you learn a lot like that."

Love, Not Money

The Fiji sevens squad players that step off the team bus on a muggy late May afternoon in west London have been winning regularly enough and playing ruthlessly enough to convince rugby aficionados that they are the gold medal favorite. Before heading to Rio, however, they are in London to take another crown—the team's second successive World Series title, which they have never won twice in a row before. All they need to do to win the World Series—which is made up of several separate sevens tournaments, with the best team overall taking the crown—is make it to the quarterfinals of the HSBC London Sevens tournament.

Much of Fiji's recent success, including a 2015 victory in the World Series—sevens' annual globetrotting tournament—has come thanks to the increased discipline, focus on diet and fitness, and fixed contracts introduced by Ryan and Ropate Kauvesi, the team's manager, a Fijian who joined the setup at the same time as Ryan. An influx of money has helped too. In 2014, Fiji signed a deal with a consortium fronted by Vodafone to sponsor the team for five years, the same year World Rugby, then the International Rugby Board, suspended its annual grant of $1.4 million until the Fiji Rugby Union (the sport's governing body in Fiji) implemented governance reforms. Concerns eased in late 2015, when the Fijian government put up $1.15 million so more of Ryan's players could go professional full time. It's still not enough to allow Fiji to compete on the financial level of Australia, New Zealand or South Africa; in 2014, Ryan's budget for the entire squad was around $143,900, and in 2015, Fiji's players earned the equivalent of $6,500 a year. But the money has helped provide stability. One Fijian player, Jarryd Hayne, took a massive pay cut to join the national team. Hayne spent a year in the NFL, playing for the San Francisco 49ers, but in the week we meet he has just chosen to switch back to rugby and reassign to the country of his birth in time for the Olympics. Hayne's salary, as a rookie, was $435,000, rising to $525,000 in what would have been his second year with the 49ers.

Fiji rugby player training
Fiji is one of the best teams to ever play Rugby Sevens; hopes are high for them to medal. Andy Hooper for Newsweek

To everyone's surprise, at the London tournament, which took place at Twickenham Stadium, Hayne disappointed, as did the whole team. Fiji lost to South Africa in the semifinal, though by reaching the quarters it clinched the World Series. Underdog Scotland went on to celebrate its first-ever tournament victory.

The defeat and subsequent cutting of Hayne from the final Olympic squad are reminders to Fiji's players that reputations will matter little in Rio. And Fiji's challengers—Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the new upstart, the United States—do not face the same pressure as Fiji. The Fijians know that nearly the entire country will be watching their every move.

In O'Reilly's Bar on Suva, which hosts live television coverage of the sevens team, staff have been preparing a series of Olympic-themed events. They expect the bar to be packed. All over the archipelago, work will stop as families gather around their TVs. Navia, half a world away in England, plans to watch many of the matches in a pub in Essex, where he will cheer for his heroes on TV alongside his English wife, Sarah, and a friend, who also knows Ryan. "We're not going to settle for anything less than Olympic gold. And from that comes lots of pressure for the boys," Navia says. "People expect big things."

For the other countries, Olympic medals will likely come in other sports. A failure to win at sevens would be a disappointment for rugby titans like New Zealand, but little more than that. Not so for Fiji. Wesley is sending three senior reporters to Brazil, a round trip from Suva of 16,880 miles, conscious of the need to preserve an extraordinary moment. "We are planning to cover every sport in which Fiji is represented," he says—but sevens will get the most attention. "You can see the hunger in the players. You can sense the pride at being part of history. Here we are, a dot on the world map. We're turning heads. And our people love it."