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Rugby is back in the Olympics thanks to American women — and now they can medal

The growth of women’s rugby made it possible to get the sport back in the Olympics

Nicole Heavirland of the United States runs with the ball for a try past Ruby Tui of New Zealand during the Women’s Cup Semifinal match on day three of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series on Dec. 7, 2019, at the Sevens Stadium in Dubai. (Christopher Pike/Getty Images)

Starting on Monday, U.S. Olympians are competing to win a gold medal in an Olympic sport their countrymen last won in 1924: rugby. Of course, the game is very different today. A century ago, rugby featured 15 players and only men participated in the physical-contact sport. The version at the 2021 Olympics, by contrast, is a faster-paced seven-a-side game. And the United States has double the chance of reaching the podium with both men’s and women’s teams qualified to compete. In fact, although rugby may not yet be a major sport in the United States, American women played a critical role in securing the sport’s return to the Olympics in 2016.

Rugby was part of the 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 Olympics. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, was a keen rugby fan and referee. And yet, it consistently failed to attract strong competition, drawing at most three teams. Because the Olympics is a multisport event, the rugby world didn’t perceive it as an important competition.

After the United States captured the gold medal in 1924, Coubertin’s successor, concerned about the size of the Olympics, eliminated many team sports from the competition, including rugby. Then, in 1957, the International Olympic Committee went further. It removed rugby from the list of recognized sports with the intention of making it harder for the large team game to return to the Olympics. The goal, again, was to minimize the overall number of athletes competing.

For a long time, it seemed as though most of those in charge of the International Rugby Board (IRB) cared little about this exclusion. For most of the 20th century, the IRB maintained an exclusive membership of only eight core countries — Australia, England, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales — and did little to promote the game globally. In March 1991, IRB committee members even “expressed concerns at any involvement with the I.O.C.” They boasted that the new Rugby World Cup, launched in 1987, gave the sport “its own comparable Olympic event.”

But Americans felt differently. Rugby had started to become popular again in the United States in the 1960s. Teams played both “rugby sevens” — which would eventually become the Olympic sport — and the traditional 15-a-side, 80-minute version. The shorter and faster game, sevens, suited American athleticism and took off, with teams soon beginning to travel abroad to compete.

After the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the U.S. rugby community clamored for the sport to make an Olympic comeback in Seoul in 1988. It wanted the guaranteed media exposure, access to National Olympic Committee funding streams and corporate sponsors that came with playing in the Olympics. The proposal gathered popular support: A petition calling for the reinstatement of rugby as an Olympic sport garnered nearly 500 signatures. The organizer described his petition as a “small sampling” of the U.S. players and spectators who wanted the U.S. Olympic Committee to request rugby’s return in 1988 or 1992.

The petition demonstrated clear grass-roots support, but the sport’s American governing body had little international influence. First, it continued to arrange international exchanges with apartheid-era South Africa in direct contradiction of Olympic ideals, alienating the IOC. And as a peripheral rugby nation, the U.S. Rugby Football Union had little official influence over either the IRB or the IOC — the key parties in deciding whether rugby would rejoin the Olympics.

But years of action by U.S. rugby, not advocacy, overcame these impediments. Critically, as rugby grew in the United States, fans and participants had embraced both the men’s and women’s games, whereas female players often faced stigma in countries where rugby was a popular men’s sport.

In the early 1990s, American women’s rugby clubs such as Atlantis, founded by 1991 Women’s Rugby World Cup winner Tara Flanagan and coach Emil Signes, began to tour internationally. A chance encounter in the Dubai airport in 1995 between Signes and two players on the Hong Kong women’s team led to a women’s rugby competition the day before the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens, a renowned men-only tournament. Atlantis tore through the competition, and the quality of the team’s performance left BBC rugby correspondent and former player Ian Robertson raving about the potential of women’s rugby.

This tournament successfully placed women’s sevens on the international rugby map. The competition was so well received that the players persuaded the organizers of the men’s tournament to allow a demonstration match between the Hong Kong women’s team and an all-star team of elite players from around the world before the men’s final. The game attracted 5,000 to 10,000 spectators. The buzz fostered the growth of exciting, if unofficial, international women’s rugby sevens competitions.

This development was vital to getting rugby back into the Olympics. In 1991, the IOC had amended its charter to include “sex” in the anti-discrimination clause, meaning that all sports added to the games had to include equal or equivalent competitions for men and women. In 1994, under new leadership, the IRB began to target Olympic inclusion as a way to expand rugby globally. Yet, in 2005, despite the growth in women’s rugby sevens and the IOC’s gender-equality statute, the IRB inexplicably submitted a proposal for an all-male competition at the 2012 London Olympics. Shockingly, the IOC actually considered the proposal — despite it clearly violating the anti-discrimination clause — but ultimately decided not to add any new sports for 2012.

Yet, as a result of the development of women’s rugby, the IRB was able to quickly rectify its flawed application. The Atlantis team’s popularity and the events in Hong Kong in 1996 laid the foundation for rapid growth of the women’s game after the IRB extended official backing and, crucially, funding a decade later. In 2009, the IRB held the first women’s and men’s Rugby Sevens World Cup. Subsequently, the IOC accepted a new proposal for men’s and women’s rugby sevens to be part of both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics. Although the United States did not receive a medal in Rio, the Americans played an integral role in growing the women’s game and making the eventual Olympic inclusion of rugby possible. And in Tokyo, the American Eagles will have a chance to bring home the gold in both the women’s and the men’s rugby sevens.