Fiji’s rugby sevens team wrote another chapter in one of the great Olympic stories at the Tokyo Stadium, when they won the country’s second gold medal by beating New Zealand 27-12 in the final.
Their captain, Jerry Tuwai, who played in 2016 too, reckoned this victory was “even more special” than their famous first because of what the squad has been through in the past few months. Listening to him, his coach, Gareth Baber, and the rest of the team talk about it all in the minutes after their victory, it was hard to disagree.
Back on Easter Monday, Baber called the Fijian squad into a five-day training camp. On their second day there they were told the country was going into lockdown, and that they would be staying on indefinitely. They have not seen their families since. They spent most of that time shut up in a hostel in Suva, training in a gym they built in the garage. Tuwai, who has three young kids, found being away from them for so long so hard that he tried to jump camp one night, until Baber persuaded him to stay on. Some of Tuwai’s teammates had it even worse.
“We’ve been away five months,” said Asaeli Tuivuaka. “My father just passed away last year, he was the man who encouraged me to play rugby, and this gold medal is for him, and for my baby boy. He is one year old now, and I haven’t seen him for five months. I didn’t even get to kiss him goodbye when I left, it is tough for me…” Tuivuaka stopped speaking, and started crying.
“I have to pay special tribute to the players,” Baber said. “By the time these guys have flown home and done their quarantine they won’t have seen their families for 20 weeks. It takes a special kind of person to make that commitment.”
The team finally got out to Townsville at the end of June, where they played a three-day tournament against Australia and New Zealand. “For a few of the boys you saw out there today that tournament was the first international rugby they’d ever played,” Baber said. “For some of them, it was the first time they’ve ever been out of Fiji, and ever been on a plane.”
The second time was on the way to Japan, when they were stuck on a cargo flight along with a few dozen crates full of frozen fish. Baber said it had helped to bring them all together. “A lot of these guys are learning to be away from their families, learning to be overseas, but if you do it right that does create a unity. You won’t find a tighter group of people than this team.
“If you give them a vision of where you want them to go, they will run through brick walls for you. What you saw out there today, and in the last three days, is evidence of the resilience of this group.”
You could see it after the match, too, when they gathered in a circle and filled the empty Tokyo Stadium with a beautiful rendition of their team hymn. “We always start with our prayers and songs, and we always end with our prayers and songs,” Tuwai said, “and that song says that our God is a loving God, and that while we always tend to go stray from what he expects from us, he still loves us, and gives us good things.” Like the gold medal, which he took off, and insisted on putting around Baber’s neck instead.
They weren’t the only ones singing. The Argentina team, who won the bronze medal match against Great Britain, were belting out their victory songs right through the final, too. They managed to drown out their stadium’s public address. The British have been through a hard time themselves. They had their funding cut by the home unions during the pandemic, and had to start crowdfunding until the National Lottery finally stepped in. In the circumstances, they did well to make it as far as they did.
“We tried to showcase ourselves as much as we could,” their captain, Dan Bibby, said. “If you look at who has done well in this tournament, New Zealand, Argentina and Fiji have had full programmes the entire time. You cannot compete on this level unless it is properly funded. I can only do what I can on the pitch. Everything else is up to the unions.
“Being brutally honest, it’s a joke. We have been offered eight contracts. Eight contracts is ridiculous. You are asking us to play against a team like New Zealand with eight boys on not much more than minimum wage. It’s impossible.”
Baber and Tuwai made a point of thanking their union for their support. Bibby and his team didn’t have anything for which to thank theirs.