O’Sullivan: Spirit of the Olympics – a perfect fit for Rugby Sevens

By David O’Sullivan

That moment when the victorious Fijian Sevens team started to sing a glorious song of thanks – that’s when I stopped feeling bad that South Africa hadn’t won the gold medal in Sevens Rugby at the Rio Olympics. The sight of those big, weeping men soaking up the euphoria of winning their country’s first ever Olympic medal was one of the great emotional moments of the Games, and I felt happy for them and less disappointed for the South Africans.

David O'Sullivan
David O’Sullivan

Earlier, I had been gutted as had many fans as the South Africans lost to Great Britain in the semi-final. I can’t imagine how the players must have felt. Their pre-Games chat showed just how much winning gold would mean to them. But their downfall was the lack of composure that so dogged them in the World Series, where they lost two finals (Wellington and London) after building up substantial leads only to succumb after the hooter had sounded. They also lost four times in the semi-finals.

When it counted most they appeared indecisive and took wrong options and it cost them gold. Poor Kwagga Smith will rue the moment he passed left instead of right where any of three unmarked players could have cantered over for a try at a crucial stage of the semi-final. But in a game played at breakneck speed requiring split-second decision-making, this is what changes a team’s fortunes. This is why Sevens is such a compelling sport.

The fact that Kyle Brown’s team was able to put that disappointment behind them and trounce Japan in the bronze medal playoff is testament to a team that has resolve. The South Africans were on the medal podium. The Olympic Games might be all about being faster, higher and stronger, but it’s also about spirit and the South Africans were all about that as they played hard and uncompromising rugby for their bronze.

It’s been a fabulous debut for Sevens at the Olympics and it’s sure to be a love affair that will endure. It had everything. There were shocks as Japan beat New Zealand and then France to qualify for the semi-finals. There was excitement as New Zealand’s quarter-final fate hinged on the result of Fiji v USA. USA lost by 5 points, enough to allow NZ through to the quarters as one of the best 3rd place finishers. There were comebacks as SA lost to Australia in the preliminaries, only to bounce back later that night and beat the same opposition in the playoffs. There was tension as Great Britain and Argentina had to play extra-time to determine a winner in their quarter-final.

2016 Rio Olympics - Rugby - Men's Victory Ceremony - Deodoro Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 11/08/2016. Fiji rugby fans cheer during ceremony. REUTERS/Phil Noble
2016 Rio Olympics – Rugby – Men’s Victory Ceremony – Deodoro Stadium – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 11/08/2016. Fiji rugby fans cheer during ceremony. REUTERS/Phil Noble

And then there was Fiji, showing the world what Sevens rugby is all about as they powered their way to an emphatic 43-7 victory over Great Britain to cue the biggest celebrations yet seen on that tiny South Pacific island. No one went to work or school yesterday and the prime minister has confirmed there’ll be a public holiday of celebration when the team arrives home. That’s how important winning the gold medal is to Fiji.

Time magazine has hailed them as the team that “could be the best story of the Rio Olympics”, and that’s not just a click-bait hyperbole. The story recounts how Fiji captain Osea Kolinisau (one of the try-scorers in the Olympic final) came from such poverty that he and his siblings took turns to go to school because the family lacked money for bus fare. And how the players can’t survive financially on rugby alone. One of the players is a prison warder and two are hotel bellhops. And how some of the players lost their homes in Cyclone Winston yet won the World Series tournament in Las Vegas a fortnight later.

I realise that professional sportsmen and women are acutely affected by defeat. They hate losing more than most people. But hopefully the SA players’ sense of loss will be tempered by the knowledge that they have performed on the world stage alongside the greatest athletes of their generation.

I’m not the biggest fan of Opening and Closing Ceremonies at the Olympic Games (though I enjoy a good fireworks display as much as the next man), but there is one glorious sight that I savour – the mass gathering of 12 000 athletes in the middle of the stadium representing the best in sport in the world. They are standing there because they are the elite athletes from their country at that time. And the Sevens players were among them.

This wasn’t lost on Seabelo Senatla when he said he felt more like an athlete than a rugby player at the Opening Ceremony, or when Werner Kok spoke in awe about walking around the Olympic Village and seeing other legendary athletes.

2016 Rio Olympics - Rugby - Men's Gold Medal Match - Fiji v Great Britain - Deodoro Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 11/08/2016. Vatemo Ravouvou (FIJ) of Fiji runs in for a try. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
2016 Rio Olympics – Rugby – Men’s Gold Medal Match – Fiji v Great Britain – Deodoro Stadium – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 11/08/2016. Vatemo Ravouvou (FIJ) of Fiji runs in for a try. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

They belong in a magnificent group that includes Olympic legend Michael Phelps, who won his 22nd gold medal to become the first swimmer to win four gold medals at four successive Games and wept with joy on the podium. It includes Ethiopian swimmer Robel Kiron Habte, one of the wonderful everymen of the Olympics with his slight paunch who swam his 100m freestyle heat slower than the American record for under-10s, but said it didn’t matter where he came – he just wanted to be famous.

It includes American gymnast Simone Biles, who has been hailed as the greatest ever female gymnast after winning the individual all-round Olympic title to go with her World Championship medal. It includes Syrian swimmers Rami Anis and Yusra Mardini who survived the trauma of fleeing their war-torn homeland in rubber dinghies on treacherous seas. Anis came 56th out of 59 swimmers in the 100m freestyle heats and told journalists he “didn’t want to wake up from this dream”. Mardini, who pushed a capsized dinghy of refugees for three hours off the coast of Lesbos, said “when you have a problem in your life that doesn’t mean you need to sit down and cry like babies”. She finished 41st in the 100m butterfly.

The Olympic Games brings them all together and while not everybody can have the stature and allure of Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, the mere fact that their country has selected them because they’re good at what they do justifies their place at the Greatest Show on Earth.

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