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‘I hope winning the Olympics gold with Fiji doesn’t mean it goes downhill from here’

‘I hope winning the Olympics gold with Fiji doesn’t mean it goes downhill from here’
Former Fiji coach and current HSBC Ambassador Ben Ryan. Photo: Getty Images/HSBC. All photos in this report: AFP/Reuters/Getty Images

‘I hope winning the Olympics gold with Fiji doesn’t mean it goes downhill from here’

SINGAPORE — In Fiji, he’s regarded as a saint. The rest of the world know ginger-haired Englishman Ben Ryan as the man who led Fiji to that historic Rio Olympics rugby sevens gold medal. It was the first time rugby sevens was contested at the Olympics, and also Fiji’s first-ever Olympic medal of any colour. So what has the 46-year-old been doing after quitting as Fiji coach after Rio? TODAY catches up with him at the HSBC Singapore Sevens...

 

How has life been after leading Fiji to that historic Olympics gold medal? What have you been doing?

Well, obviously, the sevens team consumed all my time in Fiji for three and a half years. I sacrificed everything, really, to help with the campaign to get the boys the gold medal.

And since then, it has led me on a journey all over the world for these nine months, working for various organisations.

I’ve done stuff with some rugby unions, worked in the NBA, I’m going to work in a professional football club, and I’m working with one of the biggest sportswear companies in the world. I can’t say which one. (TODAY understands that it is Nike).

HSBC has been taking me all over the world as their Ambassador. Not just working in rugby stadiums but also talking about kindness, wellness, mindfulness with their staff in their offices around the world.

It just shows that really the Fiji sevens story wasn’t really about rugby.

It was about people, and players, managing people and relations, and putting together a programme that was successful, and which had kindness and mindfulness at the centre of it all.

 

How did kindness and mindfulness apply towards your work with the Fiji team? I know you went four months without pay at the start, and that you fought for your players to be paid their salaries…

When I joined the Fiji Rugby Union, they were bankrupt, and all their players were overseas. We had no training base, I wasn’t getting paid, we had no coaching staff.

In many ways, that sounds bad, but actually, it meant I had a completely blank canvas. And so I had an amazing time putting together the programme and everything around it.

The goal was to make the team the best in the world. But the framework was very simple. We only included people we felt were going to give us value, resources that we were really going to run into the ground.

In modern society and modern sport, usually more and more things are being added to your programme – more technology, staff, money, resources.

We actually went the other way. Even when we were nearer the Olympics, I used crowdfunding to build us a gym, and sports equipment and buy stuff for the boys.

We kept our programme very simple because we felt it was easier to get everyone to understand what is required about success, and the easier it was to see if there are any hiccups or potential bumps on the road.

And the key takeaway I’ve got from my subsequent jobs, from going around the world and into organisations that are much bigger than the Fiji Rugby Union, that have hundreds of staff, and far much more money, that the key is creating that culture where it still feels like a very small team environment, and keeping things very simple.

 

Are you working exclusively with HSBC?

I’ve done a variation. Together with ex-England sevens captain Rob Vickerman, we ‘ve done stuff with HSBC staff.

I’ve also done stuff on my own. I’m mentoring a couple of CEOs and human resource directors from other companies.

What I’ve found is that at the top of these companies, they have very stressed, very pressured decision makers, and often, they have no one to talk to.

So I’ve been doing some stuff with them, giving them some tools to hopefully help them make some clear decisions, and to realise possible blind spots – things that they’re doing which are working against the organisation, and no one’s been telling them about it.

I’m also learning as much this year as I was when I was coaching Fiji.

Every where I go, I not only hope to leave them something they can use, but also end up learning from them as well.

 

Sounds as if you have taken on the role of being a comforter of the afflicted.

(Laughs) I think I was one of the afflicted as well. Fiji helped me when I was disillusioned with professional rugby.

When I left England, I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, and so Fiji breathed fresh life into me, and gave me this challenge, and I got to work every day with some of the finest athletes in the world.

You’re right — my spirit probably pushes me to challenges in which I am working with underdogs, and trying to help.

 

How does one go five months without pay?

You use your savings, and unfortunately, that was what I had to do.

But if I had to do it again, I would. Because one of the positive things that happened after someone at the Fiji Rugby Union leaked that I wasn’t getting paid, was that people realised I wasn’t there for the money, and that I had the best interests of the team at heart.

And that helped accelerate the bond between the public and me. I was very lucky to have the full support of this rugby-crazy country for three and a half years.

 

Tell me more about the Olympics experience. What was running through your mind when you woke up the day after winning the Olympics gold?

Well, the night before, after winning the gold medal, I went through about 250 journalists. That finished at 1am.

I went to sleep, I didn’t have a beer, and I probably had the best sleep of my life. I was boom, gone, and I woke up the next day feeling very content that we had achieved what we had set out to do.

Then I got to be an Olympic tourist. I’m a big athletics fan, I got to see every event, travelled all around the Olympic Village, and got wined and dined by all the big corporations and sponsors. It was a fun time

The next two to three weeks though, there was quite some hesitation among us saying that we won the gold medal because we weren’t quite sure that really happened (laughs). Of course, that’s no longer the case

 

Why did you leave your job after that?

Actually, I had told the Fiji Rugby Union six months earlier that I wanted to leave. I also wanted them to tell everyone the news before the Olympics so that during Rio, whatever happened, people won’t read into it and say “Oh, he won and then he left” or “Oh he got sacked after they lost”.

Coaches in professional sport don’t always get to decide when they are going to leave, and this was an opportunity where I did.

The Union did offer me a very large sum of money to stay, the government opened its cheque book, but I had made my decision. I knew it was time to leave.

 

Why was it time to leave?

It was a project which met my goals, such as winning world titles, winning the Olympics gold medal.

I‘m also the sort of person who throws his heart into a project for three or four years, and then either I move on within that organisation after that, or do something else.

And I’ve learnt from experience that after four years, I tend to start to lose enthusiasm, and I also think I start to lose a bit of value.

So with the Fiji team, I changed something, I put a culture in place that hopefully has some permanency about it, and then I moved on.

 

Which brings me to the next question: You’ve achieved historic Olympic success with Fiji. Do you think this will become an albatross around your neck?

You know, there is a very good chance it might be.

I hope I have some exciting stuff ahead of me, whether in sevens or another sport. I would hate to think I have another 20 years as a professional coach, and that this will be my only highlight and it will just go downhill from here.

I’m going to wait for the next challenge that really excites me. I’m enjoying what I am doing at this moment, I love the variation… but I know I have to soon squeeze down the number of things I’m doing and focus on the one job I am going to do really well.

The Olympics is very addictive and there is a real pull towards me going to the 2020 Olympics in some form. I want to be heading up a programme, or performance director of a country in the Olympics.

 

Your situation is like Clive Woodward winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup with England or Luis Felipe Scolari winning the 2002 World Cup with Brazil. Where does one go from here?

That’s why I’ve been spending my time doing these things and thinking. The book’s getting written, and we hope there’s a movie as well. We’ve had lots of meetings with the film industry.

But you’re right, it’s a tough act to follow, I’ve never really enjoyed being in the spotlight, in my next challenge, I might like to be in the shadows more… Probably this time next year, I’ll be having negotiations with what’s next.

We’ve had one or two organisations saying they’ve got a position available in a year’s time, and they’ve kept a couple of places on hold. I’ll see what happens in the next six seven months before making any big decisions.

 

What if you are tasked again to lead another country to Olympics gold?

I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to go to Tokyo, but it has to be the right team, the right fit for me, though.

And I don’t want to go to a team that is already winning things, I want to go somewhere I can add value to.

It doesn’t really matter whether it is a lowly-paid job . It’s got to be a challenge that really excites me, and make me want to throw everything into this.

 

You’ve been keeping a keen interest in the Fiji sevens team, and you’ve seen them struggling this year…

They were not looked well by the Fiji Rugby Union after the Olympics. They weren’t paid for a few months. That’s not the way to treat gold-medal winners.

They are being paid now but their pay is still the lowest on the circuit. The bottom player gets about S$5,000 to S$6,000. That’s terrible. And the top player, an Olympic gold medal winner, he’s on S$16,000.

They were playing Hong Kong, one of the minnows, yet every Hong Kong player is paid five to seven times more than each Fijian player on the field. There is something very wrong about that. I used to get into trouble with the Fiji Rugby Union for saying that they need to pay their players more money, get more sponsors.

With the Olympics win, they are now a very marketable team and you’ve got to look after them and pay them, yet they still didn’t do any of those things. They’ve started paying them now but it’s still not enough.

 

Are you ever planning to live in Fiji?

We’ve got land that they (the government) gave me (about 3 acres), beachfront, and we are going to build a little resort.

I won’t live there permanently but if I can get my perfect life together, then I’ll be hanging out in Fiji one or two months a year, surfing, playing golf and eating Fijian curries (laughs)

 

Your pick to win the Singapore Sevens?

Well, it’s Fiji but any moment, teams can fall over. They had such a massive victory in Hong Kong, which was such a massive relief for them but sometimes that emotional energy drains you more than physically.

Tomorrow’s just a bit too tough for them and I think they know that. It’s almost a natural thing.

South Africa know that if they win, they can pretty much wrap up the overall world title. I think they are going to be very good.

So I think South Africa or Fiji will win this, with the United States as my dark horse

Actually, it’s unfair to call them dark horses. The public doesn’t think of them in terms of rugby but certainly they are very good now. They haven’t improved in 15s since 1991, but in 7s they have been dramatically improving.