Suva (Fiji): Fiji won its first ever Olympic medal, a gold at that, after the national rugby team defeated Great Britain in the rugly sevens final on Thursday. Following the triumph, the whole country erupted in celebrations, setting off flares and dancing in the streets while a national holiday was declared.
The entire island country literally came to a standstill at the start of the rugby sevens final, and by half-time the fireworks had started and there was a monumental chorus of car horns as it became evident Fiji would win and create history. "This is the biggest day in Fiji's history. Everyone is celebrating," said photographer Feroz Khalil, who watched the final on the big screen at the main stadium in Suva. "It was crazy. There were people chanting, crying, tears were flowing. I'm feeling so happy."
Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who was in Rio de Janeiro to watch the final, announced a public holiday on 22 August, the day after the team arrive home. In a message to the nation Bainimarama said that every Fijian around the is rejoicing. "Never before has the Fijian spirit soared so high as it does today. Never have we stood so tall as a nation."
Fiji Rugby Union chief executive John O'Connor told AFP that nearly all of Fiji's 900,000 residents would have gathered around television sets in the 110 populated islands to watch the historic event. "Everyone is very excited. Wherever there was a TV in a village there were people gathered round. There were about 2,000 people packed in the main stadium watching the game on the big screen. Some people may go to work now but I don't think they will be very productive."
Many who did go to work, finished early to join the festivities, as the blue Fijian flag flew proudly from homes, businesses and vehicles. Fiji scored first after just 55 seconds, led 29-0 at half-time and finished up thrashing Great Britain by an emphatic 43-7.
"By the time it was half-time, people were already celebrating. It was amazing," Khalil said.
Traffic was gridlocked in the capital Suva where the streets were filled with people singing and dancing. In the rugby-obsessed island nation, the gold medal victory was also seen as a chance to put behind them the memories of four coups over the past 30 years of political upheaval.
"The win was truly a historic moment for Fiji," said Shailendra Singh, a former sports journalist and now head of journalism at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. "The sevens game is more than a game in Fiji and it is a major unifying force. The entire nation, young, old, men, women, children and adults and people from across the political divide will come together in celebration."
Rugby returned to the Rio Olympics after 92 years, with the sevens format used in Brazil enjoying a cult following in Fiji, where crowds gathered in bars, shopping centers and at the national stadium to watch the match at 10am.
With inputs from agencies