Rugby ready to sacrifice 7s World Cup for Olympics

The International Rugby Board says that it is ready to sacrifice its own Rugby 7s World Cup, and $20 million revenue, for the possibility of seeing the game played at the Maracana or Soldier Field as part of the Olympics from 2016.

“The Olympic Games are the peak of sporting achievement, and the Olympic Games would be the pinnacle for Rugby 7s. The Olympic tournament would become the jewel in the Rugby 7s crown,” Bernard Lapasset, president of the IRB, said on Tuesday in the middle of his team’s rehearsals ahead of its presentation to the IOC Executive Board in Lausanne next month.

“The world’s top rugby players have all told us that they want to be there and would be honoured to be called Olympians,” the Frenchman said.

The IRB points to the success of its tournaments at the Commonwealth Games since 1998, its inclusion at the Asian Games, All-Africa Games and Pan American Games, and the Rugby 7 tournament’s ability to be staged over just two or three days in an existing stadium, while appealing to a large, and young, audience.

This year’s Rugby 7s World Cup was staged in Dubai and claimed a global television audience reach of 760 million.

Significantly, rugby officials at the briefing, including IRB chief executive Mike Miller, were careful to refer to the sport’s “re-introduction” to the Olympics, emphasising that the sport, in its traditional, 15-a-side format, had been part of the Games under Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

Lapassat underlined that Rugby 7s would bring several positives to the Olympics. “We would help to extend the universiality of sport,” Lapassat said. “Nations such as Fiji, New Zealand, Kenya and Argentina would be given a new chance to win an Olympic medal.” Dubai even saw a women’s team from Iran qualify for the finals tournament.

And Miller pointed to the sport’s worldwide, passionate following, as offering benefits to the Olympics. “It’s not just about the teams,” he said, “it is also about the fans. We have fans who are passionate and will travel and bring a special rugby atmosphere.”

With qualifying tournaments needed for the Olympics, as well as the existing annual international commitments and the 15-a-side World Cup’s four-year qualifying cycle, it seems unlikely that the IRB would be able easily to schedule additional qualifying rounds for a 7s World Cup. The Rugby 7s World Series, with weekend tournaments staged in Hong Kong, San Diego and London throughout the northern hemisphere spring, would continue.

Officials were reluctant to put a price on the lost revenue from abandoning the Rugby 7s World Cup, but relinquished TV and sponsorship revenue is estimated to amount to $20 million over each four-year cycle. Whatever the amount, “it would be a small price to pay,” Miller said.

Miller and Lapassat said that informal approaches to the four bid cities for 2016 – Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo – had received positive feedback, and that IOC delegates attending the Dubai World Cup had been “very impressed”.

They stressed that no demand or requirement had been made by the sport for a particular venue — the tournament’s self-contained nature means that it can be staged in any existing, available athletics or soccer stadium, and that at previous multi-sports Games, Rugby 7s had been staged in the otherwise unused main arena in a couple of days before the track and field programme got underway.

But with rugby a sport already well established in Japan, Spain, the United States and Brazil, it raises the mouth-watering possibility for the IRB of Rugby 7s making its Olympic debut staged in some of the world’s most iconic stadiums, such as the home of Brazilian football, the Chicago Bears’ home field, or Real Madrid’s Bernabeu or Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.

Rugby is one of seven sports hoping for approval from the IOC in Copenhagen in October. Other sports seeking introduction, or re-introduction, from 2016 are baseball, golf, karate, roller sports, softball and squash. After sports presentations to the Exec Board in Lausanne on June 15, a decision is likely to be reached at the Executive Board meeting in Berlin in August, with its recommendations going forward to Copenhagen.

Rugby 7s was overlooked for inclusion by the IOC in Singapore in 2005, when London was chosen as the host city for the 2012 Olympics. But the game may yet feature in London in 2012, with Twickenham’s World Series weekend staged later in the summer as part of a “cultural festival” alongside the Games.

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