Small islands are much maligned. They are often of poor resource and sparse population, vulnerable to the forces of a hurricane, or an aggressive, expansive Great Power. The Pacific Islands are especially exposed. Distant and shallow, they have since their “discovery” played the role of the exotic paradise – servants of literary profits, Australian tans, and anthropological careers. Their residents have often been cast as the very model of primitivism, images to be exploited to proclaim their supposed racial inferiority, or the “purity” of a simple existence.
In reality these islands are none of the above – instead they are home to sophisticated societies with rich cultures that can nod to multiple ancestors. Fiji, the most populous of these islands, is home to a myriad of indigenous communities, as well as the descendants of those who came to Fiji as a consequence of British and Antipodean colonialism; indentured servants, missionaries, and agents of empire. But the colonial imagination of Fiji as a backwater, backward paradise continues to hang over its head.
Throughout the 20th Century global sport has created an arena in which the dominant narratives of international relations have been reinforced, and challenged. Nowhere is that more true than the Olympic Games, despite its thin pretense of being “above politics.” The Cold War carved itself onto the Olympic movement in 1980 and 1984, as the USA and USSR boycotted each other’s Games. Yet the African boycott of Montreal 1976 helped to challenge the appeasement of South African Apartheid in global affairs, and strengthen the anti-Apartheid movement worldwide. The Berlin Games of 1936 infamously served as Hitler’s great advertisement to the world of the superiority of Nazi Germany and the Aryan Race, but the Führer’s grand plan was upended by the great African-American Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals, as well as his friendship with his German rival Luz Long, formed a powerful and public challenge to white supremacy and racial separation.
For small nations, the Olympics provides an opportunity to demonstrate that they are not an afterthought in world affairs and should not be treated as such. The Jamaicans, as they are wont to do, have led the way in this regard. The dominance of Jamaican sprinting in the 21st century have returned this island nation of two million people to the forefront of the world’s attention. Usain Bolt adorns our billboards and TV screens – he is now the first sprinter to win three Olympic 100m golds in succession, the sporting equivalent of a superhero. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was unable to match this feat, but the great sprinter was felled by a new Jamaican sensation, Elaine Thompson. Jamaica has built a sprinting dynasty – belying its size and resources, the Caribbean country is feared as a world-beater. Jamaica, often portrayed as an easy-going, fun-loving place – not to be taken seriously – is recast in these moments as the pinnacle of strength, power and potential.
In rugby, the small(er) nation of Fiji has played a similar hand. Rugby was brought to the Pacific Islands by antipodean missionaries, and the colonial administration initially hampered the game by insisting on racially-segregated matches. Once this was lifted, the islanders took the game, and in their unique style of dynamic, jolting, running rugby, made it their own – their spirit embodied in the challenge of the Cibi, that connected this imperial sport to ancient island traditions.
In men’s rugby sevens, Fiji has been at the top for decades – and the Fijian women, late arrivals to the game, are gaining strength, finishing 8th at this year’s Olympics, beating the USA along the way. The Rio Olympics provided a massive opportunity for Fiji’s men’s team to win gold, and become champions with the world’s eyes glued to the games. Once again, this year’s games reflect the dominant mores of global society. In 2016, that means an Olympics backboned by ubiquitous sponsorship (from peddlers of heart disease and diabetes) and poorly-paid, transient labour. An Olympics shadowed by political protests and state-sponsored doping scandals and the silencing of a Zika epidemic. A global society that renders small islands “open for business,” sold to the highest bidder, told that their only hope for ‘uplift’ is in the welcoming of foreign capital and the suppression of wages. But as in 1936, the Games gives such nations the window to challenge those narratives that would keep them down. The athletes of the Refugee Olympic team, as Shireen Ahmed has so gracefully explained, are not there for our consumption, but so that the ten competitors can “run, jump, kick and swin alongside other world class athletes,” whilst “their sheer presence can bring attention to stories that seem so far away.”
Fiji’s men, in their demolition of Great Britain in the Sevens final, won the country’s first ever medal. In this moment, their team – close-knit, powerful, and creative – carved their names into the history books, and loudly demonstrated that this small nation could overcome the most-talented and well-resourced teams the world has to offer. Fiji has been through it recently. Their country is reeling from the devastation of Cyclone Winston, that killed 42, left over 50 000 homeless and without water, and caused an estimated $460m worth of damage. Ten years ago, Fiji was rocked by a military coup – the coup leader turned elected president, JV Bainimarama, was present at Deodoro on Thursday night, back home pursued by the charge that he has imprisoned opponents without trial, and that his Fijifirst party is working to marginalise indigenous communities and culture.
At the final whistle, the team banded together in a circle, and sang (rather beautifully) the Pentecostal Hymn “We Have Overcome” (from Revelation 12:11, for those who are interested). For a brief moment, Fiji’s team provided not only solace from these issues, but embodied the continued strength of the Fijian people – Stronger Than Winston – showing the world that they will not be cast as just another small island, only of beaches, hurricanes and political instability. Like Jamaica, Fiji is much more than that.
See it here – http://bbc.in/2aOt477
Its Olympic tradition too is richer than solely this victory. To ignore Fiji’s other achievements reduces this success to an exception to a rule, and patronises not only the victorious team but Fiji’s previous competitors, framed instead as amateurish invitees, there only to make up the numbers – just small-time competitors from small islands. This is flawed. Fiji, although without medals, in fact have a distinguished record in the Olympics dating back to 1956.
Fiji sent five competitors to their first Olympics in Melbourne 1956, fourteen years before it gained independence from the UK. Their first athlete, Mesulame Rakuro, qualified for the final of the men’s discus, where he finished 15th. Prior to 2016, Fiji’s greatest Olympian was the windsurfer Tony Philp. He competed at five Games, beginning at Los Angeles in 1984, aged just 15, becoming the longest sailor to compete at the Olympics. Philp was from a sailing family – his father Colin and his brothers Colin (Jr) and David also representing Fiji at Olympic level. In Barcelona and Sydney he finished tenth, the best ever result by a Fijian prior to Rio, but was also a four-time World Champion in windsurfing, and one of only two Fijians (alongside Vijay Singh) to top the world rankings in his sport. A recipient of Fiji’s highest honour (Member of the Order of Fiji), and flag bearer at Sydney 2000, Tony Philp was no also ran.
Carl Probert matched Philp’s achievement in 2008, when he swam in his fifth Olympic Games in Beijing. His best result was in the 100m freestyle at Sydney (the event where Eric the Eel found fame) – Probert registering 36th place (out of 73). This year Probert joined the World Olympians Association Board, in recognition of his “proud Olympic history and his commitment to the Olympic movement.” Fiji’s “Sprint Queen” Makelesi Bulikiobo Batimala qualified by right for the 400m in Beijing, and carried the flag in the opening ceremony. She is also a seven-time gold medallist at the South Pacific Games. Leslie Copeland became the first Fijian to throw over 80m in the men’s javelin, and missed out on the 2012 Olympic final by just 20cm. Keep an eye out for him in Rio. (***UPDATE*** – It didn’t go so well for Copeland in Rio)
In fact, the men’s sevens team are Fiji’s first able-bodied gold medallists, but four years ago Fiji gained Paralympic precious metal. In the 2012 Paralympics in London, Iliesa Delana was entered into the F42 High Jump competition, for athletes with above-knee amputations or comparable lower limb impairment. He was Fiji’s eighteenth Paralympian, and the only Fijian present at the games. Delana took gold with a National Record of 1.74m. Watch below.
Delana won the Paralympic gold for any South Pacific nation. He was welcomed back to Suva a hero. Iriarte, MoConkey and Gilligan describe the homecoming.
A big event was hosted in Suva, with a grand parade through the city by people of all ethnicities, school students, women and men, young and old. Iliesa Delana was accorded the highest traditional welcome only accorded to a Fijian high chief and honoured with 50 gun salutes by the military government… Iliesa Delana’s gold medal leap at the Paralympic Games was worth $90 000 and counting  – the biggest payout to any individual in the history of amateur sports in Fiji. Furthermore, for his great achievement, his winning jump is engraved on Fiji’s 50 cents coin.
Delana’s achievement was a huge moment for this nation. An example that a man from a rural village in a supposedly inconsequential country, who lost his leg in a bus accident when he was three years old, could rise to become the very best in his field. The grandeur of such an achievement was not lost on the military government. President Nailaikau proclaimed that Delana had brought “a sense of unity and pride…greatly needed at this point in time and in pursuit towards democratic governance.” The following year, Delana stood for the ruling FijiFirst party, becoming an MP before being appointed to Bainimarama’s cabinet as Assistant Minister for Youth and Sports, and supporting the impressive Fiji team at the recent Australian Deaf Games.
Both Delana and Bainimarama travelled to Rio to witness the achievements of the Sevens teams, and to ensure Fijifirst could share in the victory. Fiji’s proud Olympic tradition is a story of overcoming a lack of resources and opportunities, to challenge, and now defeat, the world’s best. Like Jamaica (and many others) alongside them, Fiji’s athletes demonstrate through sporting prowess that small islands can mould and shape global narratives. But Delana’s rise through the ranks of the controversial Fijifirst party indicates that as sport can influence politics, so too politicians can recruit athletes in the quest for power. The presence of the cabinet officials in Deodoro that night, as well as Delana’s very rise to office, highlight that the prominence Fiji’s athletes have achieved is not lost on its politicians, who hope to command the achievements of their sports stars to cement their nation-building projects, alongside their own position in office.
In the cauldron of the Olympic Games, sport and power inevitably entwine.
***UPDATE*** Yesterday Frank Bainimarama announced that, following the victory of the men’s sevens team, he was to abandon his plans to alter the Fijian flag. This effort, announced in February last year, had proved deeply unpopular among many Fijians, and according to Opposition leader Mick Beddoes, protests against Bainimarama’s designs had been organised by young Fijians. Bainimarama’s plan, ostensibly to form a break from Fiji’s colonial past by removing the union flag from its own banner, has been criticised as a hollow distraction from Fiji’s problems, and a nation-building project that aims to undermine the power of Fiji’s indigenous communities. The blue of the flag, the shield and peace are nods to the Supreme Chief Ratu Cakobau, who flew this banner in 1870 before the British arrived. Fans adorning sky blue, wrapped in flags, were commonplace in the Deodoro as the Fijian teams took to the field, and in the celebrations of the gold medallists and their fans both in Rio and in Suva, the flag took centre stage. The eternal relationship between sport and power is not one-way traffic: as politics can influence sport, so too sport can temper and mould the actions of agents of power.
Following #Fiji‘s Oympic rugby victory, PM finally drops unpopular plan to change national flag (via @JopeTarai) 🇫🇯 pic.twitter.com/gXBKCr6gEp
— Paul Clammer (@paulclammer) August 17, 2016