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“Fiji Sevens joyous imperial ironies at Rio” (FT, 20/8/2016)



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Fiji Sevens’ joyful imperial ironies

When the Fiji Rugby Sevens Team won gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics, it was not just all of Fiji rejoicing but everyone who loves “underdogs”, the “David beating the Goliath”.

Although Fiji has previously won a gold in the Paralympics (in the high jump by Assistant Minister for Youth and Sports in the Bainimarama Government, Iliesa Delana), this was the first time for Fiji to win gold in the main Summer Olympics, ever.

In the midst of all the rejoicing, many people would have already seen quite a few imperial ironies in the final medals ceremony, and some more here they can think about.

A former colony beating Britain

Here was a former colony, Fiji, beating thoroughly thrashing the old imperial colonisers and masters, Britain, in a sport which originated in Britain itself.

How ironic that when the flags were being raised, the Fiji Noble Banner Blue, with a small Union Jack in the corner, went higher than the large Mother Union Jack.

It is amazing how many Australian commentators were cheering for Fiji, against Britain, reminding us that Australia also was once a collection of separate British colonies, who had an ambivalent relationship with the mother county, just like Fiji.

British Princess Anne beaming?

Then there was the strange imperial irony of British Princess Anne beaming away as she gave the gold medals to the Fiji players who had defeated her own British team in the finals.

She was probably beaming because the humble Fijian players, despite representing a republic which had broken away from the British monarchy, all respectfully did the obo (kneeling and clapping), no doubt to the great surprise of every one else in the Rio stadium.

But the British Monarchy (including Princess Anne herself) have for decades received this mark of respect that Fijians reserved for their high chiefs, as a colony, as an independent country and member of the Commonwealth, and even today, as a republic.

I remember one “modern” Fijian friend of mine (Navi N) once telling his Fijians friends at Sussex University in UK that it was time they stopped sitting on the floor and subserviently singing songs for whites.

But the humility of the Fijian rugby players before Princess Anne and also the IOC officials (which the world now knows to include a Fiji bloke, Dr Robin Mitchell), impressed many an international commentator, who marveled at the contrast between the humble under-resourced rugby origins of the gold medal Fijians with those from the rich developed countries Fiji beat throughout the Olympics tournament.

What a wonderful international advertisement for Fiji, to counter the frequent paradoxical negative images of a country bedeviled by physical and sexual violence against women and children.

The humble British coach

Then there is the “imperial” irony that the Fijian sevens rugby team which demolished the British sevens team has been brilliantly coached by an English bloke, who once upon a time was a coach for the England Sevens team until they let him go. This is one aspect of “globalization” that Fiji people well know, after four coups:  if your country of birth does not provide the opportunities you seek, then you are free to seek them in other countries- who can benefit from your talents. Tough luck to those who did not value you in the first place.

Red-haired Ben Ryan has been incredibly successful in moulding a Fijian team into the winning combination it once had in its hey days with Waisale Serevi and Marika Vunibaka.

Fiji people should note why Ryan is remarkably different from most other Fiji coaches in any sport. Ben Ryan does solid statistical analysis of all the games that Fiji has played in.He explains to them their weaknesses (and their strengths). He has instilled a discipline in their diets, zero tolerance for alcohol drinking during tournaments, their resting and sleeping patterns, and political interference with team selection. All these are areas Fijian rugby (often with egos inflated by excessive media attention) have always suffered from.

When he first came to Fiji, Ryan was also not paid for four months because of the usual Fijian bureaucratic inefficiencies and had to use up his savings to make ends meet. Despite that, and with the support of his wife, after seeing the far more miserable and poor backgrounds of his sevens rugby players, he decided to stay on “for the journey”.

Ryan is also different from the typical Fiji coaches who offer  miserable excuse after miserable excuse for their losses- “the boys did not follow the game plan” or the “referees were biased” or “we did not have the luck”. Ryan is unique in always responding to his team losing by humbly saying “we lost to a side who played better than us for 14 minutes”.  Ryan understands games are games – there are winners and there are losers.

Ryan also probably understands (even if he wisely will not say so publicly) that Fiji’s win is not due to the support of God, even if many of his players point up at the sky and claim arrogantly that it was God that helped them to win (as if God takes sides in a rugby game).

Fiji’s other coaches have much to learn from Ryan.

A Scottish Game and the Union Jack?

The sevens game is supposed to have started in Scotland, which also has its own sevens rugby team, alongside Wales, Ireland and England, all playing separately in the World Sevens Series.

The IOC in their wisdom however decided there would be only one “British team” in the Olympic Sevens in Rio, and so the world saw only the Union Jack being waved around.

Note however that if Scotland declares independence from the British Parliament (because of Brexit), then the Union Jack will also have to remove the white saltire of St Andrew in the Union Jack. What then of the Fiji flag, which also has a Union Jack in the corner?

Not too long ago, the Bainimarama Government had made a unilateral decision that the Fiji flag must be changed and the Union Jack removed, to properly reflect Fiji’s independence in the world. He adamantly ignored the substantial Fiji opinion that called for a referendum at least.

But, one of the remarkable sights during the Rio Olympics was the incredible popularity and waving of the unique Fiji flag waved all over Fiji and in Rio, which many people in Fiji were fighting to retain.

But it seems now, and this might be one of the most memorable “achievements” of the Fiji Rugby Sevens Team in winning gold in Rio, that Bainimarama is now not going to change the flag in the “foreseeable future”.

I guess it all depends on “how far” Bainimarama is able to see the future.

Fiji’s old advocates of Sevens

Many rugby fifteens lovers once looked down on rugby sevens (mea culpa) which they thought was “not really rugby”. They may have grudgingly conceded that rugby sevens was only good for identifying fast wingers for the 15s code, for those positions requiring strength and speed, less so the weight required for scrums.

So who would have ever thought rugby sevens would make it into the Olympics, and not 15s rugby, giving forth gold, silver and bronze medals, counting exactly the same as in any of the other historically accepted Olympic events?

Of course, it may be pertinent that a rugby sevens game only lasts for 14 minutes, and you can have an entire world tournament in just a week, a reflection of the global phenomenon of reducing attention spans and trend towards instant gratification.

In the same way that international cricket is dominated by one day cricket (of 50 overs each), and even the 20 overs format which requires even less time.

But Fiji winning the gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics also owes a great debt to yesteryear’s passionate advocates of sevens rugby, such as George Reade and Pio Bosco Tikoisuva, also once captain of a Fiji 15s team that historically beat the British Lions.

After Fiji won the historic gold medal at Rio, a certain Elizabeth Reade-Fong (deputy librarian at USP) in joy shouted the entre USP library staff to free drinks at the USP staff club,  in memory of her late father, George Reade who did much to popularise the sevens code in Fiji.

The Fiji media can also print special historical supplements on the history of Fiji Sevens, to remind the Fiji public that the Olympics gold medal has been built on the shoulders of the dedicated sevens stars, dedicated rugby administrators, and committed tournament sponsors of the past three decades.

The future

In today’s euphoria (everybody loves a winner, few meet the losers at the airport), the joyous Fiji public should recall that in some of the run-up games, Fiji won by very small margins and could have easily lost because of the bounce of a ball.

Would the Fiji public be saying the same things about our sevens players and Ryan, if  despite playing their best, Fiji had not made it to the semi-finals and not won any medals at all?

Fiji’s economists (and private sector employers) need to explain to the populist Fiji Government that it makes no sense to keep declaring ad hoc “public holidays” which only benefits a select few. Others must still continue to do the work that needs to be done (cows and hens never have a public holiday).

To celebrate such a historic win, the Fiji Government should just reward the rugby players adequately, and devote more funding for the sport and facilities, which would only be fair reward for the huge publicity that the rugby sevens gold medal has brought to Fiji.

The Ministry of Sports should implement a serious review to find out why our women’s sevens rugby teams are so significantly lagging behind in international tournaments.

That will open up a can of worms (and my recent 2013 FBS Report, Fiji Women and Men at Work and Leisure, still suppressed) which shows the massive decline in time devoted to sports by females (in contrast to that for males), after the age of 12.

That needs another article.


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