Fiji celebrates 1st-ever Olympic gold medal
Vatemo Ravouvou, Viliame Mata, and Semi Kunatani, of Fiji, pose with fans after winning the gold medal match against Britain in the mens rugby sevens at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
STEVE McMORRAN, AP Sports Writer
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."
Speaking to the media later, Bainimarama recalled Cyclone Winston which struck Fiji in February, claiming the lives of 44 people and causing widespread devastation.
"You know we had Winston, the second-biggest hurricane that swept through Fiji in February," he said. "Rugby has always lifted the spirit and always brought us together. Right now, whatever political party, there's no difference. Everyone is coming together to celebrate."
Bainimarama said Fiji was "a tiny little dot" but the Olympic victory would put it on the map.
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.
A bank in Suva pinned a note to its front door saying: "Fiji is about to create history. Therefore, please be advised that this branch will take a 30-minute break during Fiji's game ... and will reopen after that."
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 Times reported fans danced in the street and said many called for Fiji's England-born coach Ben Ryan to be granted honorary Fiji citizenship.
It said "some of them (fans) could not hold back their emotions and shed tears of joy as Ryan and his team brought glory to the country."
Part of Suva's bustling Victoria Parade was closed as fans danced in the street.
"As the final whistle sounded ... people took to the streets of Suva with the Fiji flag, dancing and running from one end to the other," the Times said.
At the offices of the Fiji Olympic Committee, 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.
But 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."
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.
Fiji-born former All Blacks winger Joe Rokocoko tweeted that sellers of powerful local beverage kava "might be multi-millionaires by the end of the week."
McMorran is based in Wellington, New Zealand. AP journalist Nick Perry in Wellington and sports writer John Pye in Rio de Janiero contributed to this story.