Pacific nations realizing their Olympic hopes

By Min Lee
The Associated Press

HONG KONG (AP) — In the 114-year history of the Olympic movement, Fiji and Samoa have never so much as won a medal.

But their prospects changed on Oct. 9, when the International Olympic Committee voted to include rugby sevens in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The two Pacific island nations may not boast any world-class sprinters or swimmers — but they both happen to be very good at the condensed form of rugby.

Fiji is a two-time World Cup champion. Samoa has never lifted the Melrose Cup, but it’s a formidable contender on the IRB Sevens world series. And the Samoans are in particularly hot form this year, having won three straight titles in Las Vegas, Adelaide, and Hong Kong.

On the sidelines of the Hong Kong Sevens — the biggest and most prestigious event in rugby sevens — organizers and IRB officials revel in their recent Olympic inclusion. Fiji and Samoa are also looking ahead to 2016.

“I haven’t known any athlete from Fiji who has competed in the Olympic Games. I think this is the only opportunity for us to compete,” retired Fiji sevens legend Waisale Serevi, who worked on the rugby bid for Olympic status, told The Associated Press.

“Our country hasn’t won any sort of medal at the Olympic Games. So it gives us the chance to win at least some sort of medal and to be recognized on the Olympic stage,” Samoa sevens coach Stephen Betham said.

Betham said he expects Samoa’s rugby officials to soon start screening teenagers for Olympic potential.

“Our high-performance unit will be looking at surveying schools and how to identify players who can play in the sevens arena and get them to start high-performance programs,” he said.

But the two countries are also careful not to get ahead of themselves. In the six years between now and the Rio Games, the sevens landscape is expected to become more competitive, not just dominated by the Pacific islands and traditional powerhouses such as New Zealand, Australia, England, and South Africa, which also excel at the traditional 15-a-side format. And only 12 teams will qualify for the 2016 Games.

“We have an opportunity, but we must bear in mind that a lot of other teams also want to get a medal,” said Serevi, a member of Fiji’s World Cup-winning squads in 1997 and 2005.

“It’s a long way to go. We have just got to have the right plan to get there,” Fiji sevens coach Iliesa Tanivula said.

For two countries at the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s a different kind of excitement. China and the United States combined for a total of 87 gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but rugby is often an afterthought in both countries.

In the United States, Olympic status for rugby sevens may give the game a higher profile, U.S. sevens coach Al Caravelli said.

“It’s really legitimized the sport,” Caravelli told reporters, adding that the sevens national team is already enjoying new resources, such as access to the U.S. Olympic training center in San Diego, California.

Former American football recruit Zach Test switched to rugby sevens two years ago. The 20-year-old Olympic hopeful says he thinks short, fast-paced sevens games are ideal for the American broadcast market.

“It’s going to take off. It’s the perfect American sport. It’s a 14-minute game, then you can have a commercial, and then there’s another game,” he said.

The U.S. team reached a milestone recently in Adelaide, Australia by making a surprising run to its first-ever cup final in world sevens series.

In China, rugby takes a back seat to diving, table tennis, and badminton. Currently, it’s mainly played at the university level, lacking the nationwide network of city and provincial teams that China uses to groom talent in other sports. ♦

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