Fiji are shining example of how a country rises above cynicism to still believe in Olympic dream
South Pacific island nation flies flag of hope amid the dark depths of despair over doping and bribery allegations surrounding world’s biggest multisport event
By now you are likely aware of the abysmal state of both Brazil and the upcoming summer Olympics to be held in Rio de Janerio this August.
Whether it’s the looming contagion of the Zika virus or the impending impeachment of the country’s president and the completely dysfunctional and corrupt government that is supposed to be preparing to welcome the world, Rio looks like a disaster in the making. And never mind the ongoing doping fallout from recent Games and bribery allegations. The whole Olympic myth currently redefines the genre of disillusionment.
But none of that matters to the good people of Fiji. If you are looking for a sliver of sunlight in a sea of cynicism, then look no further than Fiji.
An island country of less than one million people, Fiji has sent athletes to 13 previous summer Olympics and three winter games with nary a whiff of a medal. By far the most famous Fijian athlete internationally is former world number one golfer Vijay Singh, who plays a game most of his countrymen are completely unfamiliar with.
And wouldn’t you know it, when golf finally returns to Olympic competition this summer for the first time in 112 years, the 53-year old Singh has cited the need to focus on his professional schedule and won’t be part of it. “I would like to play the Olympics,” he said, “but the Zika virus, you know and all that crap.”
Yeah, all that crap. Still Vijay dropping out of the games is hardly cause for consternation at home because for the first time their national passion will be part of the Olympics.
Rugby Sevens may have been conceived in Scotland and legitimised and popularised here in Hong Kong, but its ancestral soul is Fiji. All of the traditional sevens powers – New Zealand, England, South Africa and Australia – have won a World Cup in traditional 15-a-side rugby union.
But not Fiji. They have had some notable union players, but Sevens is their eminent domain proven by winning in Hong Kong 16 times, including this year, while making 26 trips to the final.
Only New Zealand is remotely close in that regard and while the Kiwis have been dominant in the World Rugby Sevens Series, it’s only in the past few years that the tour has actually become on par with winning in Hong Kong.
Make no mistake, Fijians not only expect their first medal in the Rio Sevens event, they expect a gold which is why the announcement that Jarryd Hayne was retiring from the San Francisco 49ers to pursue a gold medal with the Fiji Sevens team was a shock.
First of all, how do you make a retirement announcement when your career consists of eight games? The 28-year-old Hayne was a stalwart with the Paramatta Eels in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) for eight years.
The 49ers thing was a lark, a gifted athlete curious to see if his skills were transferable to the potentially more lucrative gridiron. The fact that he actually made the team, albeit in a significantly minor role, was remarkable in itself considering he had never played the game. However, it is fairly certain that his moving on will not affect the Las Vegas betting line on the 49ers this year.
But if he thought the transition to the NFL was an adjustment, wait until he tries Sevens and with powerful Fiji, no less. There is also the not so insignificant fact that he is Australian, although his dad is Fijian. Hayne claimed Australia’s Sevens team never reached out to him, so when Fiji did, his life-long dream of competing in the Olympics was suddenly ignited.
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Hayne talked about how walking into an Olympic stadium as an athlete, “Was an experience money can’t buy, just like my experience in the NFL sitting on the sidelines for a professional franchise like the San Francisco 49ers. When you put life in perspective, it’s about creating memories, creating dreams.”
And you know what, good for him and his adventurous soul. We need more characters, particularly those blessed with prodigious athletic gifts, who cherish and embrace the myriad opportunities of life. Still sitting on the bench and fielding the odd punt for the 49ers will be nothing compared to the challenges he faces in not only making the Fijian Sevens team, but also helping them achieve their manifest destiny in Rio. No matter how beat up the Olympic myth may be in many quarters, this year it means everything to the folks in this tiny South Pacific Island.