RIO DE JANEIRO – World rugby chiefs have declared the sport’s reintroduction to the Olympics a success after fans at Deodoro Stadium made Thursday’s final day of the Rio 2016 competition a noisy and colorful affair.
Rugby returned to the Olympics this week in its shortened sevens format after a 92-year absence, with the game’s governing body hoping to introduce the sport to a wider global audience and tap into new markets.
Patchy crowds, strong winds and a tournament-ending injury to star attraction Sonny Bill Williams in New Zealand’s opening game threatened to spoil the party, but World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper believes the positives have outweighed the negatives and hopes to capitalize on this week’s gains.
“We’ve had near sell-out crowds here for the last few days,” Gosper told The Japan Times after Kenya had beaten Brazil in front of a small but noisy lunchtime crowd in Thursday’s opening game.
“The first day started at 50 percent but we’ve built each day well. We’re seeing the broadcast reaction through Twitter and our social media handles. There’s a discovery happening by people who have never seen the sport, and there are those who know the sport but have never seen it on this stage.
“We’re getting massively positive headlines in most of the media around the world and I think there’s just been more written and broadcast about rugby in the last six months than in the last four years combined.”
There was plenty of the party atmosphere closely associated with rugby sevens in the stands at the 15,584-capacity Deodoro Stadium, with fans from all parts of the world — many in fancy dress — visiting especially for the occasion.
“I came all the way here from Japan just to watch the rugby,” one fan, who did not wish to be named, told The Japan Times ahead of Japan’s semifinal against Fiji. “The Japan team has been brilliant. I wanted them to do well but I didn’t think they would do as well as this. They’ve been great.
“I’d love lots of people to come and watch the sevens during the Tokyo Olympics too.”
Organizers are keen to introduce the game to countries outside rugby’s traditional heartlands, and Brazilians were curious to come along and see for themselves.
“It’s my first time watching rugby,” said 22-year-old Joao Isidro, who came with his rugby-playing girlfriend, Lara Holmes. “In Brazil, football, basketball and volleyball have lots of fans but rugby doesn’t. It’s a great sport. I’m enjoying watching it and I want to start playing.”
Brazil has never appeared at a Rugby World Cup and does not have a core team on the International Sevens Series, but the sport does have a presence in South America’s largest country.
Brazil lost 24-0 to Kenya to finish the Rio 2016 tournament in last place, but 40-year-old fan Andre, who traveled from Sao Paulo to watch the competition, believes the sport has a bright future in his country.
“There has been a huge development here in Brazil, trying to qualify for World Cups, playing in the American championship,” he said. “It has been on TV more and it is the largest-growing game in Brazil.
“I’ve played rugby since I was 16 years old. I went to the World Cup last year in the United Kingdom and went to Cardiff and London. I’ve been a fan ever since the ’90s. It’s the only thing I’m going to watch here in Rio. I came all the way from Sao Paulo just watch the rugby. It’s like a dream come true seeing all these great teams gather here.”
Rugby sevens has already been guaranteed a place at the Tokyo Games in 2020, with the 50,000-capacity Ajinomoto Stadium designated as the competition venue.
“There’s a confidence within the organizing committee in Japan that we can fill that twice a day, so it will be very much a Hong Kong Sevens scale and size,” said Gosper.
“Given the results of the Japan team here, the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and how they performed in 2015, there’s a general momentum toward that.”