Rugby Joins the Olympics, but is it the Right Move?
Last week it was announced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that rugby, along with golf, would be introduced to the Summer Olympics in 2016. Rugby had been petitioning for inclusion for a little while now and the decision was met with all manner of joy and ecstasy by the powers that be in rugby. But I think this decision is a mixed bag for the sport.
Without doubt there are real benefits to becoming an Olympic sport, funding and a showcase on a major global stage among them. But these benefits are more helpful for sports like Tae Kwon Do or water polo, sports that aren’t played professionally and/or are rarely seen outside of the Olympic four year cycle.
What has rugby lost? Well, for starters it’s important to understand the actual sport that the IOC admitted – rugby sevens. This is a different form of rugby (faster paced, shorter games that are more TV friendly) and for the casual fan the result will be a lot of people saying, “This is rugby?” The IRB has a lot of education to do in order to help the casual fan understand what is going on.
They’ve also agreed to cancel the established Rugby Sevens World Cup scheduled for that year. That seems a step backward for me. The initial Rugby Sevens World Cup was a tremendous success and to cancel it for the Olympics is a mistake. After all, the Olympics is only guaranteed for two tournaments, after which their Olympic status could be revoked, as it was for baseball and softball.
Rather than traditional amateur sports, rugby is more like football (soccer), with established club and country tournaments. Rather than sacrificing to gain entry into the Olympics, I would have preferred for the sport to work harder to build awareness for the Tri-Nations and Six Nations tournaments, where Rugby Union is played at the highest level.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see the sport played at that level in the Olympics. Soccer in the Olympics is barely an afterthought in that sport's global calendar, shunned by hardcore fans as unimportant and ignored by casual fans who prefer traditional Olympic sports and know they aren’t seeing the best soccer players in the world anyway.