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Where EAST meets the Northwest

RUGBY RETURNS. Fijiís Osea Kolinisau, left, scores a try as Britainís Tom Mitchell tackles him during the menís rugby sevens gold-medal match at the Summer Olympics. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

SELFIES WITH SCHOOLING. Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling, who won a gold medal in the menís 100-meter butterfly and made history by winning the countryís first gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, poses for a selfie after his arrival at Singapore Changi Airport in Singapore. (AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim)


From The Asian Reporter, V26, #17 (September 5, 2016), pages 7 & 9.

Fiji, Singapore celebrate Olympic firsts as Japan defies the odds

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

The Olympics always bring the world a slew of exciting and heartwarming stories, and Rio brought more than its share to Asian sports fans. Medallists from Fiji and Singapore established Olympic firsts, while Japanís rugby team continued to shock the world on the pitch.

In modern times, several of the early Olympic Games featured traditional rugby, with 15 players on a side, but no Olympics has included the sport since 1924. In 2016, rugby returned in a faster, leaner format, with seven players on each side.

Twelve teams qualified for the menís "sevens" version, including traditional powerhouses like New Zealand, Great Britain, and the top-ranked team in the world, Fiji. But the field also included young upstarts such as Kenya, Brazil, and Japan. Following on the heels of their stunning upset of South Africa during pool play at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Japan hoped to continue their odds-defying ways in Rio.

They did not disappoint.

In its opening game, the squad faced New Zealand, the 12-time world champion. Unruffled, Japan employed its speedy game to stun the Kiwis, 14-12, grabbing the first-day rugby headlines. Eager to prove the win was no fluke, Japan fought hard against a seasoned British squad, but lost, 21-19, missing a late conversion that would have given them a tie against another formidable opponent.

Japan trounced Kenya, 31-7, in its last group match, to qualify for a quarterfinal matchup against France. Trailing 5-7, Japan scored a try with just 17 seconds left to steal the victory against France and advance to the semifinal round.

There, Japan faced Fiji, rugbyís world champions, who were widely expected to win the countryís first-ever medal. Fiji had cruised through the tournament, winning all three of its group matches against the U.S., Argentina, and host Brazil. In the quarterfinal, the team defeated New Zealand, 12-7, scoring on their first possession and then holding off a late Kiwi surge for the win.

Giant-killing Japan failed to deliver an upset against Fiji, though they kept the match close at first. Fijiís Vatemo Ravouvou scored in the first two minutes, but Japan quickly struck back on a try from Teruya Goto. Fiji pulled away for good at the start of the second half, however, then added to the lead, prevailing 20-5.

Fiji continued its momentum in the championship match against Great Britain, who barely put up a fight. The Fijians scored five unanswered tries in the first half to take an insurmountable 29-0 lead as Britain spent the entire first half on their end of the field. A late try broke the shutout, but Fiji cruised to victory anyway, 43-7.

Fijiís gold medal, the first ever awarded in rugby sevens, was also the first medal ever for the small island nation. Fiji erupted in celebration, and thousands tweeted with the hashtag #ToSoViti, which means "life is good." Life was not as good for the Japanese side, however. Japan ended its Olympic quest with a lopsided 14-54 loss to South Africa in the bronze-medal game.

Singapore also won its first gold medal, in a heartwarming story that involved American swimmer Michael Phelps, winner of the most medals in Olympic history. In 2008, Phelps and the U.S. swimming team travelled to a country club in Singapore to train before the Beijing Olympics.

Phelps caused a commotion when he arrived at the club, and adoring fans swarmed him for photos. Among those who snagged a snapshot with the Olympian was a 13-year-old Singaporean swimmer named Joseph Schooling. "I was so shell-shocked," recalled Schooling, "I couldnít really open my mouth."

Inspired by his idol, Schooling became Singaporeís top swimmer, qualifying for the 2012 Olympics at the age of 17. There, he raced in the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, but Olympic officials told him during a qualifying heat that sponsor restrictions meant he couldnít race in his cap and goggles. This seemed to throw him off, and he swam poorly, failing to qualify for either event.

By 2016, Schooling had become such a star that his countryís president travelled to Brazil to cheer him on. In the 100-meter butterfly, Schooling posted the top time in both the preliminary and semifinal heats. This put him in the driverís seat in the final, facing not only Phelps, but also LŠszlů Cseh of Hungary, who swam the best time in the world this year, and South Africaís Chad le Clos, the 2012 silver medallist in the event.

In the 2016 final, Schooling led the formidable field the entire way, finishing in an Olympic record time of 50.39 seconds, breaking the record Phelps set in Beijing. Phelps himself finished a whopping three-quarters of a second behind Schooling, in a three-way silver-medal tie with le Clos and Cseh.

After the race, Schooling said humbly, "I donít think Iím anywhere close to these three guys right next to me, I just had a good day today." He went on to say he hoped he could show "that even people from the smallest countries in the world can achieve a lot of things." For his part, Phelps said, "Iím proud of Joe [Schooling] Ö I wanted to change the sport of swimming. With the people we have in the sport now, I think you are seeing it."

As in Fiji, Singapore celebrated Schoolingís medal across the country and online. The prime minister said on Facebook: "It is an incredible feat, to compete among the worldís best, stay focused, and emerge victorious." Lottery tickets with Schoolingís winning time quickly sold out, and social media exploded with congratulatory posts.

Asian athletes continue to make inroads in international sports, and the Olympics provide the perfect stage for them to show off their advancement. Fijiís performance was largely expected, but Japan and Singapore broke new ground in rugby and swimming. With the 2020 Olympics scheduled to take place in Tokyo, Asian sports fans already have plenty to look forward to. These breakthrough performances in Rio will raise that anticipation another notch.

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