No matter how many more millions of people Fiji’s competitors may have in their populations, they’re still only allowed seven players on the rugby field at a time. And that wasn’t nearly enough to contend with Fiji’s gold-medal winning team, which demolished Great Britain 43-7 in the first ever Olympic rugby sevens competition.
Paste attended the quarterfinal matches today, and the wide-open, seven-a-side version of the sport was immediately gripping. Players lifted each other up like a college cheerleading routine. The passing was quick and acrobatic. The action rarely stopped for each of the seven minute halves. And the open-field tackling was as beautiful as it was brutal.
But it was clear that Fiji was playing at a different level, as they easily dispatched Japan to guarantee the first Olympic medal in the island nation’s history. Their former colonizers did just enough to dispatch South Africa in an atypically low-scoring 7-5 victory to guarantee silver, but nothing about Great Britain’s performance made it look like they had enough to stop Fiji’s recent dominance in the sport.
For the friendly and enthusiastic Fiji fans—like the group of women who dubbed themselves the “Blue Wiggies” and others who’d traveled more than 8,000 miles to cheer on their team—the semifinal victory was encouraging, but nerves were far from settled. “We have a saying in Fiji,” said Frederico, a fan who’d followed his rugby team all the way to Rio. “Don’t whistle until you’re past the village.”
But Frederico and the legion of Blue Wiggies are whistling tonight. The South Pacific nation with a population of less than one million has competed in almost every Summer Olympic Games since 1956, and its very first medal was the color every Fijian was hoping for.