WELLINGTON, New Zealand — When the Fiji men’s rugby sevens team won the World Sevens Series earlier this year, it was a moment to savor: back-to-back titles in the sport’s biggest competition.
That success could seem minor, though, compared with the prize at stake in Rio de Janeiro in two weeks.
Fiji has competed in 16 Olympic Games to date, but it has never won a medal in any sport. That looks destined to change, now that rugby sevens — Fiji’s national sport — is part of the Olympics.
Rugby, the full 15-a-side version, has been in the Olympics before, but you have to go back to the 1924 Games in Paris, when the United States won the gold. This year’s version will be sevens, the shorter, faster and less complicated version of the sport — and one where Fiji excels.
Osea Kolinisau, Jasa Veremalua and Savenaca Rawaca may not be known to many people outside of Fiji, but they and other stars like Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand; Cecil Afrika and Seabelo Senatla, both of South Africa; and Perry Baker of the United States have the potential to make plenty of new fans when they play in Deodoro Stadium during the three days of competition, from Tuesday through Aug. 11.
Fiji Coach Ben Ryan has so much talent that Jarryd Hayne, who ditched an N.F.L. contract with the San Francisco 49ers to chase his Olympic dream with Fiji, failed to make the roster.
Fiji’s success since Ryan took over in 2013 is all the more impressive, considering what the team has overcome.
The program was already operating on a shoestring budget before the Fiji Rugby Union went into a financial crisis in 2014, when World Rugby, the sport’s world governing body, temporarily suspended funding after the union failed to make changes to its governance and finances.
Then in February this year, Fiji was hit by a devastating cyclone that left 44 dead and tens of thousands homeless.
As Ryan told CNN’s World Rugby show, “It’s been everything from the second-biggest cyclone to hit land mass and boys having their houses wiped out; we’ve had death within the playing group; we’ve had all sorts of things going on.”
Ryan — with his distinctive red hair and black glasses — is already a cult hero in Fiji, as are his players. Should they win gold in Rio, celebrations are likely to go on for days, and the players can expect to be given land and in some cases ministerial positions in the government.
Another rugby-obsessed country however, will be hoping to burst Fiji’s bubble.
New Zealand has not had the ideal buildup to the Games, with its world series hopes hit hard by injuries. It finished third this year, behind Fiji and South Africa, another strong medal contender in Rio. But New Zealand’s captain, Scott Curry, has warned rivals not to write his team off.
“Looking back at the world series we won three events and Fiji won three, so I think it’s pretty close,” he said in an interview. “I think there are five or six teams that won a tournament throughout the season, so any one of those could get up.”
With each game lasting only 14 minutes with a two-minute halftime break, upsets are more common in sevens rugby than in the 15-man version of the sport.
“Rio being a one-off tournament, it doesn’t matter how consistent you are, you’ve just got to win six games,” Curry said.
At the Games, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Kenya and the United States will line up alongside the more traditional rugby powers: Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa, Britain, Australia, Argentina and France. There will be three groups with four teams each, and teams will play two games a day over three days.
Group-stage games and the quarterfinals will be played the first two days, with the semifinals and final on the third day.
Typically in the world series, teams play three matches a day over a two-day span. The flagship Hong Kong tournament and another in Las Vegas are the exceptions and use a format similar to Rio’s.
“Two games a day is a little bit easier on the body,” Curry said. “It gives the body a bit more of a rest, which is a good thing. It probably makes it a bit more competitive, too.”
Aside from Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa, other likely medal contenders include Britain, Australia and the United States, although the latter two will probably need to play near-perfect games and have opponents not at their best if they are to progress to the medal matches.
In the women’s competition, Australia is the overwhelming favorite for the gold after dominating the Women’s Sevens Series to claim its first title.
The Pearls won three of the five tournaments, and Shannon Parry, one of team’s top players, credited the Australian Rugby Union’s decision to centralize the sevens program in early 2014 and give the players full-time contracts as key factors in the team’s improvement.
“We’re definitely reaping the rewards of that,” Parry said. “We’re fitter, we’re faster, and off the back of the hard work we’ve put in, we’re excelling at the right time of the year.”
Participation in women’s rugby has increased since the announcement in 2009 that sevens would be included in the Olympic program. In March, World Rugby said that 25 percent of the total number of rugby players globally were female.
But Parry believes getting the game in front of a entirely new audience in Rio will push women’s rugby to new heights.
“I think off the back of the Olympics, rugby sevens around the world will skyrocket,” said Parry, who gave up her teaching job to be a full-time player. “Hopefully the world series will see a lot more stops around the world so us female athletes can showcase what we’re all about.”
In Rio, Parry expects New Zealand, traditionally one of the strongest teams in women’s sevens, to bounce back to challenge for gold.
The women’s competition will run from Aug. 6 to 8 and will also feature teams from Brazil, Canada, Australia, Colombia, the United States, France, Fiji, Japan, Kenya and Spain.
Canada, Britain and Fiji are other medal contenders.
“But honestly, you just never know with sevens,” said Parry. “The best team on the three days is going to come out with that gold medal.”
Fiji The clear favorite for the gold medal after winning back-to-back world series titles. Coach Ben Ryan has made the players more disciplined when it comes to their diet and how they recover, while on the field he has introduced more structure to the team’s defense without curbing any of its flair. It has made Fiji one of the most consistent teams in the game and difficult to beat.
New Zealand The New Zealand Sevens team was hampered by injuries throughout the world series and was nowhere near its best last season. But with key players due to return for Rio, the X-factor of Sonny Bill Williams and a masterful coach in Gordon Tietjens, the team will be a strong contender for gold.
South Africa The try-scoring machine Seabelo Senatla and Cecil Afrika are the key players for the Blitzboks, another contender for gold. The South Africans made the finals in four tournaments last season but won only once, raising concerns about their ability to close out games.
United States In Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, the team has two of the fastest men in the sport. The United States team has improved during the past 12 months, but to win a medal it will need to be at its best for the whole competition and hope that Fiji, New Zealand or South Africa have an off day if they meet them in the knockout round.
Women’s sevens Australia is the gold-medal favorite after its breakthrough world series title this year and are hitting Rio on a hot streak. New Zealand is likely to be Australia’s biggest rival for gold, although Canada and Britain will be in the mix for a medal.