Fiji wins first-ever Olympic medal in rugby

Samisoni Viriviri of the Fiji National Team stiff arms Tom Mitchell of Great Britain during the Gold Medal Match at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Fiji won the match 43-7 en route to its Gold Medal. (Photo by Photo by Robby General)

Samisoni Viriviri of the Fiji National Team stiff arms Tom Mitchell of Great Britain during the Gold Medal Match at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Fiji won the match 43-7 en route to its Gold Medal. (Photo by Photo by Robby General)

Fiji entered the 2016 Rio Olympics as an oxymoron — a favored underdog.

The small island nation had never won a medal at the Olympic Games in any sport, but in the first rugby gold-medal match since 1924, Fiji blew out Great Britain 43-7 Thursday.

Isimeai Vono Baleileyuka, 57, flew to Rio from his home in Fiji just to watch the match. He watched from the top of the grandstands at the east side of Deodoro Stadium and taped Fiji’s distinctive powder-blue flag to the back wall he used as a drum.

“I guess most of the people in Brazil don’t know about Fiji,” he said. “But to see Fiji playing rugby in the Olympics, it’s a new thing to them … Fiji is unknown to this side of the world.”

In the world that follows rugby sevens, however, Fiji entered the Games as one of the favorites. The team is the two-time defending champion of the HSBC Sevens World Series, a 10-tournament league with cumulative standings.

And like the World Series tournaments, spectators were treated to multiple games with their medal-round tickets. As a result, the stadium featured a mix of fans from across the globe who stuck around for the gold-medal match after their home countries finished.

Most non-British fans, it seemed, pulled for Fiji. A chorus of boos erupted when Great Britain scored a second-half try to end the shutout, and whenever Fiji scored, the stadium would break out in Brazilian-style chanting.

Olé! Olé, Olé, Olé! Fiji! Fiji!

Olé! Olé, Olé, Olé! Fiji! Fiji!

A group of former USA Rugby players were also in attendance. Laura Cabrera, 47, said the Eagles adopted Fiji as their favorite team for the night.

“Everybody roots for Fiji, and the reason is they’ve never had a medal,” she said. “It’s awesome that they have a medal in the Olympics. And everybody loves to root for Fiji anyway because their fans are so fun. They’re friendly people.”

The matchup between Fiji and Great Britain was also special for 17-year-old Luke Uru. He traveled to Rio from his home in Woodbridge, England, a town in Suffolk County, but was born in Fiji. He said it was amazing to see the support for the Pacific nation that has a smaller population than Delaware.

“Being such a small country, we’re not in the spotlight of sport as much as other countries,” he said. “So having the one sport that we’re the best at, it’s good to have that sport.”

He said he thought most fans were rooting for Fiji because of its lack of a medal, but the nations’ underdog status may change in the near future.

“Seeing how they played,” Uru said, “it’s impossible to call [them] that anymore.”

Colin Grylls is a Ball State University student and writer for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students travelling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram and facebook.com/bsuatthegames on Facebook.

Authors:
Colin Grylls

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