As the countdown to Rio 2016 continues, Michael Stoneman looks at how the latest sports to join the Olympic programme – golf and rugby sevens – are preparing for the Games.
Olympians come in all shapes and sizes. From petite gymnasts and towering high jumpers, to wiry marathon runners and powerful weightlifters, the wide variety of sports showcased during the Olympic Games ensures a special and unique gathering of athletes. And at this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, two more distinct groups of sportsmen and women will be making themselves at home in the Athletes’ Village, as golfers and rugby players take to the Olympic stage.
With less than six months to go until Rio 2016, all eyes are on golf and rugby as they prepare to return to the Games for the first time since 1904 and 1924 respectively, having been added to the Olympic programme again in 2009.
“It’s obviously been a long time since either of them were part of the programme,” explains IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell. “We’re looking forward to both sports making a huge contribution to the Games in Rio and beyond, and equally for their Olympic inclusion to have a real and lasting impact on the two sports around the world as well.”
Golf, which was first included at the Games in Paris in 1900, will include men’s and women’s individual events in Rio de Janeiro, each featuring 60 of the world’s best players in a 72-hole stroke-play contest over four rounds, with medals awarded to the three competitors with the lowest total score.
Peter Dawson, President of the International Golf Federation (IGF), believes that “excitement is really mounting” and is hopeful that the sport’s increased global exposure following its return to the Games will help it grow throughout the world. “We began this project of bidding for golf to return to the programme of Olympic sports because so many small countries – small in golfing terms – really needed some help to grow the game,” he says. “They said to us, ‘Look, if we could get golf into the Olympic Games it would give us extra exposure, extra government support, extra popularity for golf.’ And that’s already beginning to show through in so many countries that I visit around the world.”
According to IGF data, there are approximately 60 million golfers in more than 120 countries, making it one of the world’s most popular sports. But the IGF is keen to use the unprecedented exposure of the Games to increase participation in countries that do not already have a strong golfing background.
“By being exposed to the tremendous audience that the Olympic Games attracts, we hope to bring more fans and in turn more participants to golf,” explains IGF Executive Director Antony Scanlon. “Based on the experiences of other sports that have taken this journey, we know that this does not happen straight away, but the Rio 2016 Olympic Games will provide great foundations for golf to build upon.” The IGF is also hoping to leave a significant golfing legacy in the host country. The newly constructed course in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca district that will host the competitions is set to become a public facility after the Games, enabling more people in the host city to access the sport than ever before.
According to Alexandre Rocha, only the second Brazilian to compete on the sport’s leading PGA Tour, golf will enjoy a boost in Brazil through the creation of public facilities such as the Olympic course. “All golf courses in the country are part of private clubs, which makes it very expensive to join them and play the sport,” he says. “It’s great that Rio’s Olympic Golf Course will be public; it’s an example to be followed.”
In the build-up to Rio 2016, the IGF has also helped launch Rio StreetGolf, a schools and communities social legacy project that aims to break down sporting and social barriers and highlight the key values of golf – honesty, respect and integrity. Rio StreetGolf uses adapted golf balls and clubs to make the sport possible in any urban environment, and will see more than 15,000 children and adults participate through school and community programmes, as well as four high-profile tournaments in central Rio de Janeiro.
The 2016 Games are also set to provide rugby with the chance to grow around the world. While the traditional 15-a-side version of the game was part of the sports programme at four editions of the Games between 1900 and 1924, the Rio 2016 competition will feature the Olympic debut of the high-octane sevens format. Played by two teams of seven players on a full-size pitch, with two halves of seven minutes, the high-intensity matches are sure to attract a lot of attention.
“Rugby returns to the Olympic Games summer programme in Rio de Janeiro for the first time in 92 years and we expect that the sevens event will add significantly to the entertainment value and excitement of Rio 2016,” says World Rugby President Bernard Lapasset. “We are really looking forward to showcasing our exciting sport on the biggest sporting stage of all.”
According to Mark Egan, World Rugby’s Head of Competitions and Performance, being on the Olympic stage is vitally important for the sport. “It’s massive for rugby to be part of the Olympic Games,” he says. “It opens up rugby to schools and educational institutions that will see it as an Olympic sport on the Olympic stage. That gives it more credibility.”
Like golf, rugby is aiming to boost participation levels around the world – and the sport is already witnessing record growth before a try has even been scored in Rio de Janeiro. According to World Rugby, participation numbers have increased by more than 2.6 million since 2011, with 7.2 million people now playing the game across the federation’s 120 national member unions. “We’ve had a huge boost in interest in rugby, particularly through the National Olympic Committees (NOCs),” explains Egan. “There are 80-plus NOCs which are not that familiar with rugby, so there’s been a huge amount of interest at that level and there has been a good lift in government and NOC funding for the game because of the Olympic status.”
A new “Get Into Rugby” initiative has been a central part of World Rugby’s strategy for growing the game, with a target of attracting and retaining one million new players by Rio 2016. A record 460,000 children participated in the programme in 2014, while more than 300,000 took part in the first five months of 2015 – a 40 per cent increase on the same period the previous year.
Rugby is also hoping to leave a lasting legacy within the host city and host country. World Rugby unveiled Brazil’s first ever semi-permanent beach rugby pitch on Rio’s iconic Copacabana beach in June.
In addition, World Rugby has launched the “Impact Beyond” programme, which aims to use Rio 2016 as a catalyst for the growth of the game in Brazil. The initiative provides training for physical education teachers and members of sports clubs, so that Get Into Rugby can be included in 1,000 schools in Rio de Janeiro as well as community and social projects, reaching 200,000 children throughout the country.
“We want to leave behind a really strong legacy for the sport in Brazil,” explains Egan. “We had over 500 children taking part when we launched Get Into Rugby in Brazil. We’re hoping to have 20,000 in the Rio area who will have touched a rugby ball or been involved in a rugby programme between now and the Games, and hopefully over 1,000 school teachers will have been involved in some kind of training or coaching programme as well.”
Rugby is already one of the fastest- growing team sports in Brazil, and with more than 46,000 children introduced to the game in the past two years, World Rugby is aiming to ensure that Rio 2016 provides a platform to inspire and engage even more new participants and fans.
According to Kit McConnell, the Olympic Movement as a whole will benefit from the inclusion of the new sports. “Both sports are in a fantastic position to realise the goals that they, and the IOC, had when they were added to the programme for Rio 2016,” he says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for each of these sports to showcase themselves and reach new audiences, but equally, with those two sports bringing their high-profile elite athletes and their fans to the Games, it will add to that truly unique mix that is the Olympic Games.
“The inclusion of these two sports gives the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement the opportunity to access new fans and new audiences. Both of the sports have huge global followings and the opportunity that their involvement in the Olympic programme brings is creating the connection between those fans and the Olympic Movement around the world.”
Rio 2016 will be the first time that new sports will have been contested at the Games since triathlon and taekwondo made their debuts in Sydney in 2000, and McConnell believes that the ability to bring new events to the Games is a major part of their success. “The continuing evolution of the Olympic programme – both in terms of sports or the events within those sports – is something that is very important for the IOC, as we seek to showcase the best of sport and the best events available within those sports. It’s about us having the flexibility to reflect modern trends in sport and continuing to use the sports programme and the events programme to both engage with and inspire the youth around the world.”
But bringing sports back into the fold requires a lot of coordination between the IOC and the IFs to ensure a successful delivery of the Olympic competition and that the opportunity provided by the Games enjoys maximum impact afterwards. “It really is a partnership and we’ve worked very closely with both federations,” explains McConnell. “Both sports had a strong presence in London in 2012 so that they could be part of the learning experiences that those Games provided. We’ve also worked very closely with them in their coordination with the Rio 2016 Organising Committee, helping them to learn about what comes with the organisation of an Olympic competition.”
As the countdown to Rio 2016 enters its final strech, both sports are looking forward to the experience of being part of the Games and witnessing the reaction of fans in the host city and around the world. “We want everyone to come and see this really exciting and dynamic sport, which is so successful around the world – wherever we take it,” says Egan. “There will be a great athletic exhibition on the field, but also people coming to enjoy themselves. There’s music, there’s entertainment – a bit of something for everybody.”
Indeed, the Games as a whole have been providing a bit of something for everybody for almost 120 years, and McConnell is looking forward to what golf and rugby will bring to the party in Rio de Janeiro. “We’re very much looking forward to the added value that they will bring to the Games, but it’s about all 306 events and all 28 sports adding up to something very special and unique,” he says.