Fiji celebrates 1st-ever Olympic gold medal
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Pacific Island nation of Fiji erupted into celebration on Friday after its rugby sevens team defeated Britain to capture the country's first Olympic medal. The fact it was gold made it even more of a reason to party.
In the capital of Suva, fans packed the 15,000-seat National Stadium to watch the final of the Olympic tournament on a big screen. Tense at first as they saw the nation poised on the brink of an historic achievement, fans relaxed as Fiji ran away to an emphatic 43-7 victory on Thursday evening in Rio de Janeiro.
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, in Rio for the games, issued a statement hailing "a wonderful moment in the history of our nation. We have won our first gold medal at a summer Olympic Games and every Fijian is rejoicing at home and around the world."
The match was played at 10 a.m. local time and the nation of around 900,000 mostly stopped as fans gathered around television sets. At the University of the South Pacific in Suva, classes were halted to allow students to watch the match, and banks sent notices to customers saying they would be closed for 20 minutes to allow staff to watch the game.
Social media was awash with expressions of joy and congratulations and for a time Fiji was the No. 1-trending search on Google.
National carrier Fiji Airways said it would be serving only Fijian beer on its flights in in a gesture of celebration. A post on the airline's official Twitter account said "history is for the brave, for the warriors and the proud. Today, pride soars!"
The Fiji Sun online news website reported "the dream of winning Fiji's first Olympic gold medal has finally become a reality ... our Fijian boys sang from the depths of their hearts after an outstanding performance."
The Sun said Suva "came to a standstill as people were stuck to a TV screen for the 20 or so minutes."
At the offices of the Fiji Olympic Committee immediately after the match, staff began planning for the team's return and for national victory celebrations. A spokesman said it was too soon to say what form those celebrations would take.
Bainimarama said "a wonderful reception awaits our boys when they arrive back in Fiji."
"Never before has the Fijian spirit soared so high as it does today," he added. "Never have we stood so tall as a nation. So let us rededicate ourselves to the task of building our beloved Fiji. One nation, one people, playing an even greater role in the region and the world."
In deeply religious Fiji, fans visited churches to give thanks for the victory and some said they had fasted in the hope of improving Fiji's gold medal chances.
Rugby sevens is Fiji's national sport and almost every village, no matter how small, usually has a team. Some villages do not have electricity, creating a challenge for some fans to watch the game.
The Fiji Village website reported that 51-year-old Peni Matai from the village of Serua had traveled by minibus from 2 a.m. Friday to be in Suva in time for the game. Matai, who works for the Asian Development Bank, said Serua has no television reception.
He watched the match in his office in Suva, providing updates to the village by phone.