Broken marriage, friendships lost and forged and Olympic glory: Ben Ryan talks about the ‘Beautiful Chaos’ of Fijian rugby – Part 1
Former Fiji sevens coach’s book is to be released at the end of May and the Englishman talks to South China Morning Post about his amazing journey
Almost two years ago, Englishman Ben Ryan etched his name forever into Fijian folklore when he led the Pacific islanders to a cherished gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games rugby sevens tournament in Rio. Ryan was more than a coach to the players. He was even more than a friend. He embedded himself into the Fijian culture, agreed to work for no pay for at least six months and laughed and cried with the players through on- and off-field challenges.
The gold medal earned Ryan a chieftain title – a rare honour for a foreigner – and he even has his face on Fijian currency. Ryan is now ready to tell his story via his book, Sevens Heaven: The Beautiful Chaos of Fiji’s Olympic Dream, which is officially due to be released on May 31 but is available already online.
South China Morning Post spoke to Ryan recently about the book and how he peered deep within himself to acknowledge some of his faults as well as the need to abandon Western ideals in order to blend in with Fijian society. Here is the first part of that conversation.
Why write the book?
Well, I guess it’s something that’s been a common thread, that when I sit down with people and we chat about my stories and journey in Fiji they always say I should write a book about this and so we got around to it. It was ghost written by a good friend of mine who I was at Cambridge University with, Tom Fordyce, who was chief sports writer for BBC and he also kept pushing me and telling me, ‘look we gotta tell this story’. So that’s where it went from really. So I sat down with him in different coffee bars around London almost feeling like I had therapy over the last 12 months as we told the story.
Is there a theme or a narrative from start to finish?
There is an overall theme about how you can be happy and kind and nice to people but also ruthless and perhaps that the simple life can be a successful one. Strip away all the material stuff that you don’t have in Fiji, treat people with respect, create an environment that doesn’t cost money but give people feelings of security and safety and status and achievement and purpose and belief and then you can do some pretty spectacular things ... I don’t want to get too political but it’s sort of an anti-Trump type thing, anti-Brexit type stance, I suppose.
So you’re a man of the world?
You almost have to apologise these days when you say you don’t feel very English ... I don’t. I guess with Irish and Welsh backgrounds, three years in Fiji and I’m a Fijian chief now, I kind of don’t feel English any more and you feel like you just want to be nice to people and treat people with respect.
People have very little money in Fiji but are still happy. Is that what you found there?
One hundred per cent! When the cyclone came in two years ago, that was devastating and they’ve been hit with one at the moment [before April’s Hong Kong Sevens], albeit a smaller on. But it has destroyed [villages] and there’s nothing there and the boys would say, ‘well we didn’t have much to start with so we start all over again’. And they’re incredible happy people and they have very little money.
Was it hard to get your head around that?
I’m pretty open minded and I wasn’t going to suddenly jump to decisions or make them do things the English way. I listened a lot and took things on board but I probably did have an idea that I thought Fiji was golden sands and palm trees. The fact that most of the villages are inland, a lot in settlements and a lot without generators and long-drop toilets and all sorts of things. I spent my first six months really just looking around and talking to people. Understanding the culture and then I guess adapted my coaching, training and leadership around that.
Did you avoid the “white man in the jungle” approach?
Yeah, I did 100 per cent. You know, you get a taste of going to other countries and get that expat community that treats the place with a little bit of disrespect. I went to this place that was paradise and had all sorts of things going for it and I wasn’t going to be in that expat group. I lived outside Suva, I lived in with locals and around locals and my friends were all Fijian and it worked.
Any emotional parts of the book?
Yeah, the book comes out on May 31 and there’s a few chapters. There’s one chapter all about one of the players, Jerry Tuwai, and my relationship with him and his parents. And he comes from a settlement in Suva, a really rough place ... there’s a chapter about how we used the natural environment for our training, the docker sand dunes, it’s such a cool place and in this chapter I really think we described it well.
And I guess it’s that chapter around the Olympic Games and the aftermath and what happened and the lessons that I’ve learned. Even if you don’t like rugby; we’ve tested the book on people who have no interest in rugby at all and they’ve read it cover to cover. It’s just a good story.
Have you had time to really reflect on what the Olympics meant?
Not entirely really. I think when I shut my door at the Olympic Village on the day of the final knowing that the result will be of great significance to Fiji it was also of great significance to me personally. It’s opened so many doors from a work point of view, winning a gold medal. Allowed me to go and see some really good people and I guess validate my style of coaching and leadership that isn’t alpha male. It is about getting the best out of people and the results will follow so I suppose that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from that.
Were you able to get out your own faults in the book?
Yeah, I’ve been really honest about it. My marriage broke up over everything, amicably. I also talk about my past and how it’s forged my present. There’s a whole thread about my best mate who unfortunately, I don’t know where he is, that I fell out with and he went the side way and ended up in prison and it’s been my guilt around trying to have helped him more.
Are these faults things that you yourself identified or what others were telling you?
I think I’ve certainly improved my ability to understand when I’m not behaving appropriately and when things aren’t right. Often those blind spots are there and I think I had them when I left to Fiji from England, I had become more material, not a particularly good version of myself and Fiji allowed me to reset and then also find that perspective so I’m acutely aware of a lot of my weaknesses and I talk about them a lot.