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Friday, September 24, 2021

Gold in Tokyo, Glitter in Fiji

Express in Tokyo: Reeling under Covid-19 wave and lockdown, rugby Sevens title expected to spread smiles around the island nation.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Tokyo |
Updated: July 29, 2021 8:19:25 am
Olympics RugbyFiji's Jerry Tuwai scores a try in Fiji's men's rugby sevens quarterfinal match. (AP Photo)

Watch Jerry Tuwai fly.

Ball tucked in his armpit, he first plants his right boot – that has ‘fork’ written on it. Then the left, which has ‘knife’ inscribed. A hop. A wiggle. A step inside to skip past the outside man. Then sprinting straight, going past the cover man, he plonks the ball across the line. There is this endearing story about those ‘fork’ and ‘knife’ mentions that amplifies rugby’s role in Tuwai’s life, but first the significance of the result to the tiny Island nation.

When Jerry Tuwai flies, Fiji fly. Right to the top of the Olympic podium. Like they did on Wednesday.

The Pacific island clinched back-to-back Rugby Sevens Olympic gold medals with a dominating 27-12 win over the rugby superpowers New Zealand at the Tokyo Stadium. Last time, their government declared a national holiday, the central bank printed $7 notes to commemorate the country’s first-ever gold medal — actually, a medal of any colour— their then-coach Ben Ryan was gifted land, and waterfall along with it, and the players became the country’s biggest celebrities.

Fiji’s Jerry Tuwai evades a tackle attempt by Australia’s Nick Malouf, in their men’s rugby sevens quarterfinal match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

“How do you top that?” wonders the team’s chef de mission Patrick Bower. “This time, the medal will heal people; it’ll act as a balm for people who are affected by Covid.”

Fiji is currently in the grip of a dangerous Covid wave. On the eve of the rugby team’s Olympic final, the country recorded 1,285 new cases – it might not seem much but for a country with a population of less than a million, the situation is grim, so much so that it was even feared if they’d make it to Tokyo.

The team has remained in a bio-bubble since April, trained at a hotel garage that was turned into a gym remained for weeks in quarantine first in Australia and then in Japan, where they were initially planning to fly on a cargo flight that carried frozen fish, until they got a booking on a regular commercial flight.

And while they played on Wednesday, the entire country was still in a strict lockdown – the schools are shut, jobs are lost, markets are closed, the number of containment zones is increasing each day, the health systems are stretched and hospitals are being raised inside sports arenas. “So this, the gold medal, will bring smiles to the faces of the people in these very tough times. They have nothing else to look forward to,” Bower says.

Rugby is an outlet.

The sport, Bower says, is a religion in Fiji. It was true for both finalists. But while the All Blacks are one of the world’s most dominant teams in the 15-a-side format, Fijians excel in sevens, attributing their instinctive passing and one-handed offloads to the innumerable games that are played on the beaches and in villages throughout the Island.

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“After religion, this is the most important thing,” says Fiji’s ambassador to Japan Bula Vinaka, who was among the handful who watched Fiji pull-off a repeat. “People play it everywhere, it’s something that unites us and has become our identity.”

Rags to riches stories

Tuwai is the prime example of how an Olympic gold can change the lives of these players. He learnt the sport using coconuts and plastic bottles, slept on the streets of capital city Suva, grew up without electricity in a family of modest means, father a farmer and mother a housemaid.

His mother, Tuwai told the Olympic Channel last year, gifted him a pair of shoes. “I wrote ‘knife’ and ‘fork’ on it, as they would help me provide for my family,” Tuwai said.

He now tours the world, lives in plush hotels and is paid to play. And it’s not just him — Josua Vakurinabuli works as a prison officer and worked double shifts during the pandemic, Asaeli Tuivuaka lost his brother and father before he made this far, the team is flush with stories of struggle to reach this far.

“These players will be able to improve their lives. Teams in foreign countries will offer them contracts worth thousands of dollars. In Japan, they are ready to give up to $22,000 per month to these players. Even I do not make that much!” Vinaka says.

Argentina’s Santiago Alvarez, left, comes under pressure from Fiji’s Jerry Tuwai, in their men’s rugby sevens semifinal match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

It was Tuivuaka’s try that secured Fiji’s gold in an eerily quiet stadium, where almost every shout on the field and from the bench could be heard. As was the case during the final at the Rio Olympics, Fiji were always in front during the gold medal match on Wednesday. They scored three tries in the first half to take a 19-12 lead and when Tuivuaka raced over for a touchdown with less than two minutes left, the second gold in a row was assured.

After they won, the Fijians started singing a hymn on the podium and continued singing even when their anthem played. “We are suffering a lot with the pandemic right now,” Tuwai says. “I think we will forget about the pandemic. Everyone would be shouting and happy.”

There won’t be thousands lining up the streets like last time. Instead, when they land this time, they’ll be sent straight for a 14-day quarantine. “A gold medal can’t replace human life,” Tuwai says.

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