POSTED: April 14th 2010

JOHN GOODBODY: Rugby numbers game doesn't add up for the Olympics

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative, exclusive new series only from Sports Features Communications

LONDON, Apr 14: Rugby union is desperate to become a global sport and its officials believe that the inclusion of the sevens version of the game in the 2016 Olympics will help them transform the world’s view that it is an activity played seriously in only a handful of countries.

In July 2008, an independent report entitled Putting Rugby First stated that of the 33m people who watched the 15-a-side Rugby World Cup Final between South Africa and England  the previous autumn, 97 percent lived in nations that were the founding members of the board, namely France, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the four countries of the British Isles.

The document said the sport was “stuck in a ghetto.” There are various areas of the world, where the sport is barely of park standard, and this has been demonstrated at the quadrennial World Cup, when there are so many ludicrously one-sided matches.

However Bernard Lapasset, president of the International Rugby Board, said recently: "We have six years to promote the long-term strategy in new countries to see how many players can play sevens. It is very important to promote rugby and be sure that they could be competing for qualification in the Olympic programme.”

Uneven contests

He knows that a tournament dominated by the traditional rugby-playing countries and with unevenly contested games, could see the sport eventually being kicked out of the Olympics.

But should it be in the Olympics in any case ? Much of the impetus for its inclusion has been driven by Dr Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, and a Belgian rugby international, although, as he said to me with engaging self-deprecation in December 2001: "In Belgium, if you sit by the phone long enough, it will ring and you will be asked to play rugby for the country.”

And by 2016, Dr Rogge will have retired from being the IOC president, a position to which he has otherwise generally added distinction.

In the leading rugby nations, such as Britain, rugby sevens is very much second-best to 15-a-side. For example, the final of the 2009 IRB World Cup Sevens in Dubai was screened exclusively on Sky, the subscription channel, and had average ratings of 22,000, with a peak of 43,000.

And this in the country where rugby was invented, where there are still far more rugby players than in any other country in the world and in a tournament, which was won by Wales and with England reaching the quarter-finals.

Yet Sky often gets at least 550,000 viewers for just a standard 15-a-side Heineken European Cup club game.

Competition twist

The truth is that the IOC has allowed a sport onto the Olympic programme, which evidently is not the most popular version of the game. It is like there being a competition for five-a-side football in the Games, rather than 11-a-side.

The reason that the IRB did not want 15-a-side in the Olympics is because it would then rob the quadrennial World Cup of its significance.

As it is, the IOC members, most of whom come from countries where rugby of either version is undeveloped, have been hoodwinked by the rugby authorities and the Games have been demeaned by the inclusion of a rugby sevens competition.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2008 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 11th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.

Keywords · John Goodbody · rugby union · sevens · IOC · Olympic Games · London 2012 · Rogge · IRB · Lapasset

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