July 22 marked the end of the seventh edition of the Rugby Sevens World Cup, the first hosted by the United States. New Zealand’s men and women each repeated as champions of the quadrennial tournament at AT&T Park in San Francisco, which was converted into a rugby pitch for the three day competition. Although Fiji’s men’s and women’s teams finished fourth and eleventh in their respective tournaments, their players and fans made this year’s contest especially memorable.
The Fijian players started their journey in Utah and Colorado about ten days before the World Cup. Utah’s Fijian community welcomed the men’s team at Utah Valley University, where the team took advantage of the high altitude to undergo intensive training meant to build endurance and improve their ability to work together as a team. Similarly, the women’s team completed high-altitude training together in Denver to prepare for their first matchup, which was against Spain. About a mile above sea level, the thin air of Utah and Colorado’s mountain cities was a notable change from the coastal setting of Suva, which holds Fiji’s largest rugby stadium.
While the players were preparing for the tournament, Fijian fans took center stage in San Francisco. Taking advantage of direct flights connecting Nadi and San Francisco, Fiji Airways and Tourism Fiji organized the “Fiji Happiness Takeover,” a series of cultural events during the week before the tournament. Fijian fans started with a Kava ceremony, a welcoming tradition featuring a drink made of crushed yaqona root. On Tuesday, the fans hosted a Fijian warrior performance at Union Square. Men adorned with grass skirts and spears braved the cool, foggy air to perform a meke, a traditional dance that tells a story of battle. Their celebrations ended Thursday with a World Cup welcoming ceremony that brought members of the Fijian community across California together.
California was a fitting location for these Fijian celebrations. Over three quarters of the Fiji-born population in the United States lives in California, giving it a Fijian community of over 32,000 and counting, with 996 Fijians naturalized as US citizens in 2016. In 2017, 100 Fijian students studied in the United States, while 266 American students studied in Fiji, further linking the two countries. Fiji and California are also increasingly connected by air. In 2017, San Francisco became the third US city with a direct flight to Fiji, joining Los Angeles and Honolulu. Furthermore, Fiji Airways and Alaska Airlines plan to expand their codeshare partnership, simplifying travel between 23 US cities and Fiji through their hub in San Francisco.
The Rugby Sevens World Cup and “Fiji Happiness Takeover” are just the latest examples of how the United States and Asia are connected through sports. Americans’ interest in rugby— a sport at which Asia has historically thrived— has given way to numerous athletic exchanges between New Zealand and the United States, as well as increasing numbers of American players in the Australian rugby league. As rugby continues to grow in the United States, Fiji’s illustrious rugby history, including two World Cup titles and three third place finishes, can serve as a basis for further US-Fiji exchange.
Luke Pluta-Ehlers is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago studying Global Studies and Geography.