After a 92-Year Hiatus, Rugby Returns to the Olympics

For the first time in nearly a century, the Summer Games will feature rugby—and in a fast-paced, fan-friendly seven-player format that has the tiny nation of Fiji aiming for its first-ever gold medal.

Apr 20 2016, 4:20pm

Rob Hutchinson-EPA

If there's one thing you should know about Fiji heading into the Rio Olympics—well, besides the country's beautiful beaches, bottled water, and propensity for military coups—it's that the South Pacific archipelago of roughly 800,000 people is ridiculously good at seven-a-side rugby.

Just how good? Coming into the USA Sevens rugby tournament held in Las Vegas in March, Fiji's national team had to travel while dealing with the news of Cyclone Winston wreaking havoc back home. Then a virus swept through the squad, which left four players vomiting, one waylaid entirely, and two on an all-crisps diet for three days. On the first day of the tournament, they missed breakfast and their pre-game ice baths, got stuck in traffic on the way to Sam Boyd Stadium, and then were upset 28-24 by regional rival Samoa, a loss that snapped Fiji's record for consecutive wins in the pool stages of international sevens events.

Yet despite what Fiji coach Ben Ryan described as a "plane crash" of a start, his team won the tournament, just as they did the previous year.

"Vegas probably has more distractions than any other tournament in the series," Ryan said after the team won the cup final 21-15 against Australia. "Just the venue alone doesn't suit international sport. I don't mean the stadium, but just the gambling, the city, the jet lag, everything else. To win back-to-backs here shows that we deal with distractions pretty well."

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Fiji has never won an Olympic medal. In fact, the country has never really come close. But this summer, that figures to change. The country's rugby team currently leads the HSBC Sevens—a 10-tournament series made up of national teams from around the globe—and the final standings will determine the seeding for the Rio Games in August.

Barring an unforeseen calamity, Fiji will enter Rio as gold medal favorites in a sport that is returning to the Olympics following a 92-year hiatus. And in a nation where rugby is the most popular sport, all eyes will be focused on the pitch.

"I think the whole population of Fiji, in Fiji and all over the world, will stop and watch this," said retired Fijian player Waisale Serevi, arguably the greatest rugby sevens player of all time. "All their bosses wherever they're working, I can promise now, they'll all receive sick leaves, and some death in the family, and somebody's getting married, just because of the Olympics, those three days."

Team Fiji celebrates a victory at a recent tournament in Hong Kong. Photo by Jerome Favre-EPA

Rugby sevens joins golf as the two new sports in this year's Summer Games. At the 121st International Olympic Committee Session in Copenhagen in 2009, they won out over karate, squash, roller sports, baseball, and softball—the last two were dropped in 2005, creating two vacancies in the Games' 28-sport lineup.

Serevi was part of the bidding team that successfully sold rugby sevens to the IOC. "We tried London, we couldn't," said Serevi, who now coaches with Atavus, a Seattle-based high-performance rugby and football company. "Then we tried again for Brazil and it went through. I'm so happy I've done my part. Even though I'm not playing, I've done my part getting rugby into the Olympics and I'm happy for these young rugby players that are in this era to go on and represent rugby."

Rugby union was last part of the Olympics in 1924, when the traditional, 15-player per side version of the sport was featured. Medals were handed out to the only three nations who entered the Paris Games competition: the United States, France, and Romania. (Technically speaking, Team USA will enter the Rio Games as two-time defending gold medalists.)

Rio will mark the Olympics debut of the increasingly popular sevens format. The first sevens tournaments involving national teams were played in the 1970s; since 1999, the World Rugby Sevens Series has been jet-setting teams to tournaments in Dubai, Hong Kong, Wellington, and Las Vegas.

Jason Leonard, a former player and current president of the Rugby Football Union, England's governing body for the sport, says that the sevens format was an easier sell to the IOC, largely because its level of competition is more open and unpredictable than traditional rugby.

"It was always going to be very tough to push through the 15-a-side game because not everybody plays it in the world," Leonard said. "The Olympics is meant to be for everybody around the globe. With sevens now, it actually really created a stir around the world; it was a natural progression to look at the sevens first and actually create that."

Sevens rugby is played worldwide, including in Australia and Argentina. Photo by Ym Yik-EPA

Much like the early 19th-century British prep schools from which it emerged, traditional rugby has a distinct international tier system. Tier one contains the 10 rugby nations that compete in the two top international rugby tournaments: the Six Nations Championships in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Rugby Championship below the equator. Tier two has the emerging countries that are still playing catch-up—including Fiji's 15-a-side national squad—with lower budgets, talent, or interest in the sport. Tier three are the minnows, mostly happy to just be invited, if they are at all.

Though the points margins between tier-one and tier-two teams in World Cup matches has gradually decreased from an average of 45 points in 1993 to 22 points in 2015, there is still a gulf between levels.

In the World Rugby Sevens Series, by contrast, 15 national teams make up the core each season. The worst team at the end of each year is replaced at the beginning of the next by a nation that has earned promotion via its play against the next-lowest pool of countries.

Because teams of varying skill levels face each other so frequently, sevens has become a more competitive format than traditional rugby union. While New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa, and Samoa are the only teams that have won the 16 seasons of the series, an additional six teams have won individual tournaments, including the U.S. at the close of last year's season in London.

Upsets happen fairly frequently. Besides Fiji's loss to Samoa in Vegas, Kenya trounced New Zealand 22-0, then lost 26-14 to an American squad that had struggled going into the game.

"The competitiveness in sevens has grown a lot and you can't take anybody for granted, no matter where they're ranked at," said Perry Baker, a member of the U.S. Sevens team.

"The Olympic Games are all about every team having an equal opportunity to win a medal, and this is it," said Kenyan player Humphrey Kayange. "You get big teams, you get small teams beating big teams, you get small teams believing in the Olympic dream and the Olympic spirit."

The IOC had another good reason to select sevens: it's easier to pick up and follow for newcomers and casual fans. Each game only lasts 14 minutes—as opposed to 80 minutes in traditional rugby—and a three-day tournament like the one in Las Vegas can feature up to 16 contests on its busiest days.

On the field, players are lighter and fitter than their 15s counterparts, the better to cope with sevens' greater emphasis on speed and hustle. With fewer players on the same-sized field, mistakes are amplified and much more likely to lead to scoring plays, which also generates accessible excitement.

"The casual person [in the U.S.] won't understand the 12th or 13th phase [in 15s]," said Gary Hein, a former player for USA Eagle, University of California, Berkeley, and Oxford. "They will understand a dynamic 40-yard run and missed tackle scoring under the post with a dive. That's more like American football, which is what many kids in this country grew up watching."

Sevens Series tournaments are similar to American football in another respect: for three days, they offer a tailgate-like atmosphere of beer, food, and partying, all with an international flavor. In Las Vegas, it was easy to see which sections of the stadium each country's fans were sitting in; Kenyan fans joked that no business was getting done by their diaspora in the States, because they were all busy watching the games. A mix of national team jerseys, flag suits, kangaroo outfits, and Smurf and Teletubbies costumes gave the proceedings the feel of a particularly festive Model United Nations meeting, albeit one taking place on Halloween with a dress code inspired by professional wrestling.

Adding to the jamboree feel was the Las Vegas Invitational, the largest amateur rugby tournament on the continent. Professional and amateur teams representing coaching programs, colleges, and multiple age groups from all over the U.S. and the world competed on nearby fields. Women's national teams, which will also compete in Rio, played along with 11 other women's and girls' divisions.

"I think sevens is fantastic from an American perspective because, as an entry point, it's a good prism," says Steve Lewis, the director of rugby operations with PRO Rugby, which launched North America's first professional rugby league on Sunday. "People can see the action. It appeals to American short attention spans and desire for scoring. You can bring them into the game that way."

Rugby fans are colorful. Photo by Jerome Favre-EPA

Lewis and Pro Rugby are counting on the Olympics to help boost rugby's popularity in the U.S., and hoping Team USA can exceed expectations.

"I've coached a lot of these guys, so I personally want them to do well," he said. "We all want them to do well, but it would help us if we can have a sort of 'Miracle on the Ice' type moment. If we medal, this thing's going to take off."

Back in Fiji, of course, rugby fans aren't hoping for a medal. They're expecting one.

"They're very aware that there's some history that can be made," Ryan said of his Fijian team. "We set our goal this year of Rio. Our second goal is winning the series and that will mean going into the Olympic games as favorites. We don't feel there's anything wrong with that tag, we'll enjoy that tag and that's what we want to do."