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Countdown to Rio Olympics: Fiji heading for Sevens heaven

Fiji has been sending athletes to the Olympics since 1956 and hasn't won a single medal -- but this year in Brazil the nation's golden moment is finally within touching distance.

The reintroduction of rugby at the Games for the first time since 1924 has served up an opportunity to the tiny Pacific Islands archipelago that could literally bring the country and its 880,000 population to a halt.

Rugby is Fiji's national sport and the Olympics men's team will go to Rio in August as favourites to top the podium in Sevens -- a shorter form of the 15-a-side game that puts additional emphasis on speed, agility and stamina.

The country's men's Sevens team are the reigning champions of the World Series -- an annual tournament with 10 different legs played all over the globe -- and have mastered the sport as well as fallen in love with it.

"If we won something at the Olympics, you can just imagine what would happen: the island would not stop celebrating," said Joe Rodan, the president of the Fiji Association of Sports and National Olympic Committee (FASANOC) and a 400 metres runner who competed at Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul four years later.

"Everyone in Fiji is backing the Olympics and whenever the Sevens side are on, everyone organises their household chores around the team. If we won the Olympics, Nadi airport would be far too small for the crowds.

"That's how we look at sports in Fiji. It is a sports-mad country with Sevens at the top. We are confident and have faith in both the men and the women. We hope both will win medals."

Nadi airport is where the Fiji men's and women's teams will return to from Brazil and, as well as the four days of competition at the Games. When they land, that could well be another moment when the nation's traditional export industries of refined petroleum, raw sugar, mineral water, fish, molasses and coconut oil take a dip in production.

The impact the Games could have on Fiji has not been exaggerated -- you only have to chat to the men's team coach, Ben Ryan, for about five minutes to get an idea of the sport's importance there.

The Englishman had a Fijian child named after him when his players came back with the World Series crown last May and he has a level of celebrity in the country which Hollywood A-listers would struggle to match.

"It's been a little bit overwhelming and it's a bubble, one that is hard to explain," Ryan told ESPN.

"I can't go to the shops in Fiji; I get stopped when I'm driving. I get stopped for a couple of hundred photos a day if I'm in [capital city] Suva and there was the kid named after me when we won the world title, as well as a pop song.

"When you come out of the airport, there's a billboard with my face on it. But it's too much for me, it's overwhelming. I spend a lot of my time at home whether that's on the golf course, by the barbecue, in the pool.

"If we win a gold medal I imagine I'll get a light-blue Fijian passport and maybe a strip of land."

These are uncharted waters for Fiji, however. The Sevens side have achieved iconic status -- Waisale Serevi, regarded as the finest ever Sevens player, was the Fiji Times' 2005 Personality of the Year -- and their target this year is to win the world series and go into the Games ranked No.1.

However, there is a well-used Fijian proverb that says 'life is like this: sometimes sun, sometimes rain', and if the Sevens team, the 2015 World Series champions, have been basking in dry conditions, their Olympic predecessors have endured a deluge of failure.

Since their first Olympics foray in 1956, Fiji have sent a total of 119 representatives to the Games but have a return of no medals for their endeavours.

This summer, they have planned to send 50 athletes and 30 support staff, a figure which dwarfs 1988's record high of the 24 Fijian athletes sent to Seoul.

Away from rugby, Fiji have high hopes for sprinter Banuve Tabakaucoro and expect to be competitive in both judo and weightlifting.

But athletes' feats -- excluding those of the Sevens team -- will be measured in reaching the Games, rather than medalling.

In the oval-ball game, they expect glory in both men's and women's events. "The Prime Minister has told me that only a gold medal is good enough and the same went for the president," Ryan said.

The size of the Olympics team and the expectations on the Sevens' side has made the Rio Games an expensive one for Fiji.

The budget required is in the region of FJD$7 million (£2.2m, US$3.26m), and only FJD$3m (£950,000, US$1.40m) is due to be provided by the government, with the rest still to be drummed up from sponsors.

But travel and tourism makes up around a third of Fiji's GDP and success at the Olympics could be worth FJD$500m (£161.12m,US$229.7m) to the country, according to Rodan.

"The Olympics is one way that we can put our country on the world map," Rodan said. "The Games will be viewed by about two billion people and a lot of them won't know where Fiji is.

"By putting Fiji out there, hopefully by getting into the finals, then people will hopefully look at where Fiji is and see our beautiful country."

Fiji are the favourites but New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Great Britain and the U.S. will all have aspirations for Sevens supremacy.

Charged with delivering against some much larger nations are two English coaches: Ryan with the men's Sevens side and ex-England Sevens player Chris Cracknell with the women.

Ryan, who joined Fiji in 2013 after six years in charge of England, has accepted the pressure on him -- and preparation is key, with details such as time spent in the Olympic Village already being decided upon.

"We go to places like Vegas and Hong Kong on the Sevens series but I've been on trips where the boys have never been on a plane before, or even a lift," Ryan said.

"That's another level when you think about the Olympic Games. We keep a robust and simple framework -- we are honest with each other and any distractions are met head on.

"I do have a question which I haven't yet answered about when we will go the Olympics Village. I want them to go to the opening ceremony, but I don't want them getting too long in the Village and it affects their performance.

"There are a tonne of distractions, even something like free WiFi. Facebook is the second sport in Fiji and it will be hard to keep them off it.

"The boys understand this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and know that if they cross lines there will be repercussions. But I treat them like men and they respond positively to that."

Ryan plans to finish his time in Sevens after the Olympics and is targeting a job in the 15-a-side game, but he wants his final act to be one that is gold-tinted for the islands that have taken him as one of their own.

"It will leave a legacy on the island and for the next generation of Fijians, it will inspire them if they have 12 or 13 gold medallists from Rio," he said.

"They are from such different backgrounds. [Sevens player] Jerry Tuwai is from a settlement and winning the World Series meant he could afford a generator to get electricity and then running water; it can improve things for his family.

"That's the Olympic spirit, you can have people from those sorts of backgrounds going to Rio to mix with the superstars in the village and, hopefully, by the end of the first week, on August 11, we'll have that gold medal."

Before the Olympics, there are eight more legs of the World Series for the men's team. Combine a defence of that title with a gold medal, and their return to Nadi will be a sight to behold.

"When the team landed after winning the Sevens World Series, the journey back from the airport should have taken them two-and-a-half hours. It took them 10," Rodan said. "If we won the gold, it would take them 10 days."