Sevens will get the Olympics party started
October 14, 2009
All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset and former Pumas international Agustin Pichot celebrate rugby's inclusion in the 2016 Olympics © Getty Images
"Rugby and Rio together - great sport, great party. I mean, we're made for each other."
Never has a truer word been spoken. The claim by Mike Miller, chief executive of the International Rugby Board, came as the sport's governing body mounted a final push for Olympics inclusion. That monumental effort ended in unbridled joy last Friday with Sevens getting the nod to join the ultimate sporting stage.
It has been a long hard road to this point and has included more than one false dawn but rugby is finally set to return to the Olympic family in 2016 after a 92-year absence* albeit in its shortened, but arguably more entertaining, format. The signs were good earlier this year when Sevens was recommended for inclusion by the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) executive board but the sport's powerbrokers still required a majority vote from the complete IOC membership when they met in Copenhagen last week. The eventual vote - 81 votes in favour and eight against - was a ringing endorsement of their bid and due reward for their efforts.
Anyone lucky enough to have experienced the colour and carnival atmosphere at any of the stops on the IRB Sevens World Series or witnessed any of the five Rugby World Cup Sevens tournaments will also vouch for visual feast awaiting the world in Rio.
As opposed to the all-too common defensive drudgery of the 15-a-side game, Sevens is more often than not a breathtaking and dazzling explosion of free-flowing, attack-minded rugby as physically draining for players as it is emotionally wearisome for fans.
And those fans have flocked in their thousands, lured by the growing reputation of the IRB Sevens World Series and the showpiece Rugby World Cup Sevens that will make way for the Olympics as the pinnacle of the Sevens game. Crowds of 50,000 descended on the purpose-built venue, The Sevens, in Dubai for each day of this year's Rugby World Cup Sevens - that featured a men's and women's competition for the first time - to see Wales and Australia taste success. Packed houses are also common in New Zealand and Hong Kong - the most popular stops on the IRB's globe-trotting World Sevens Series.
In the United States, widely considered the key to the future expansion of the game, the best exponents of the game drew tens of thousands to Petco Park in San Diego earlier this year and hopes are high the move to the 36,800-capacity Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas will nurture that following yet further.
And any of those concerned that the proposed four-day tournament, that will occupy Rio's Estádio Olímpico João Havelange Stadium ahead of the start of the athletics, will struggle to fill the 60,000 seats need only look to the 2006 Commonwealth Games tournament that drew an energised 50,000 crowd to the Telstra Stadium in Melbourne, Australia.
More important than the sport's growing fan base is its geographical reach and it is the diversity of the latter that was one of its trump cards when it came to winning support within the IOC. The IOC currently boasts a membership of 205 nations, 106 of whom actively participate in Sevens.
This year's IRB Sevens Series, the highest level of regular competition, featured 34 different nations ranging from not only the southern hemisphere powerhouses of New Zealand, Australia and winners South Africa and the European giants of England but also the smaller, but no less formidable, nations of Fiji, Samoa and Kenya.
Sevens is quite rightly proud of its current footprint but this decision really could be a major springboard for the sport in terms of development and broadening its appeal. It already has a foothold thanks to the afore mentioned IRB Sevens, RWC Sevens and Commonwealth Games - and the sport is also part of both the Asian and Pacific Games. As a result Olympics medal glory is suddenly a very real and attainable goal for many more nations.
Some critics have suggested that Olympics inclusion, and the subsequent funding that it opens up for developing nations like the USA, China and Russia, eases the heat on the IRB to nurture development at Test level. They argue the sport's governing body has failed to capitalise sufficiently on the undoubted commercial success of the Rugby World Cup but there can be no doubting the significance of this latest chapter in the sport's history - ranking alongside the creation of the Rugby World Cup and the sport turning professional in terms of impact and legacy.
To their credit the IRB utilised the formidable presence of All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu to help get the job done. The 34-year-old made his name in the shortened version of the game, later sharing in his country's Commonwealth Games and Rugby World Cup Sevens success, and has never lost his appetite for it long since having earned a promotion to the Test stage. He is the closest thing the sport has to a global superstar, transcending the sport - emerging in emphatic style at the 1995 Rugby World Cup - and no-one has come close despite the fact that he last pulled on New Zealand's world-famous jersey in 2002. But many more of the sport's leading names are likely to press their case in the hope of flying down to Rio to join the party in 2016.
OK, Brazil may not be one of the sport's leading protagonists which is the main reason why this seemingly perfect match has not been made until now. But what it will bring to the table is an enthusiasm and unrivalled willingness to have a good time. Rio in particular will need no encouragement with the carnival atmosphere set to stretch from the golden sands of Copacabana and Ipanema all the way to the Olympic stadium. Let's get this party started.
*Rugby did appear as an exhibition sport at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin