Missed opportunity to bolster HK's sevens campaign

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:20pm


Poor Brian Stevenson. The president of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union had lost his Blackberry and wasn't aware the International Rugby Board was hosting a cocktail party until Hong Kong Olympic chief Timothy Fok Tsun-ting asked him why he hadn't turned up. Fok, who had been invited by the IRB, managed a quick visit to the rugby shindig before hurrying to London's Chinatown where he was hosting a Hong Kong media dinner at a restaurant owned by a Hongkonger and named the Golden Dragon.

'Where were you? All your friends were looking for you,' Fok asked Stevenson, the chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club who is also a Hong Kong Olympic attache. Stevenson never got the chance to ask the IRB bigwigs what the state of play is regarding rugby's return to the Olympics four years from now in Rio de Janeiro. He might have been able to push the case for more than the current 12 places for rugby sevens in 2016, and thus increase Hong Kong's chances of qualifying.

'It's a pity that only 12 spots are available to team sports at the Olympics, especially as rugby sevens can be finished in just two days, unlike football, for instance, which drags on,' Stevenson said. When informed that soccer was the exception to this rule - there are 16 teams taking part in the men's tournament - Stevenson was taken aback. How come this special treatment for soccer and not basketball or hockey or even handball?

It's because Fifa is as big as, if not bigger than the International Olympic Committee and can call the shots. Fifa wants 16 teams at the Olympics, Fifa gets 16 teams. It is the big bully in the park. That is why the soccer tournament for men is limited to under-23s with three over-aged players allowed in each squad.

Fifa knows the Olympics need soccer and not the other way round. The World Cup is bigger than the Olympics in their eyes, and they are probably right considering the beautiful game is the most universally loved and played sport.

Rugby does not have the luxury of being able to call the shots. That is why the IRB has bowed to the dictates of the IOC and agreed to a 12-team tournament as sevens makes its debut - 15-a-side rugby was in the Olympics in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924. The IRB should have demanded more than just 12 men's and 12 women's teams in Rio.

The IOC has not been entirely altruistic in admitting rugby back into the Games. It has realised what a big attraction sevens is, which in turn means attracting more viewers, which translates into big bucks through the sale of broadcast rights.

Just look at the figures - the last HSBC Sevens World Series, of which Hong Kong was one of the nine legs, was watched by an estimated global audience of 850 million people. Programming from the season was carried in 16 languages and reached 374 million homes.

The number-crunchers at the IOC are aware of this and no wonder the hierarchy, including president Jacques Rogge, made overtures to the sport. They know rugby sevens is an attractive sport tailor-made for television. They know it can be played over two days, in front of a guaranteed sell-out stadium, and it will be a fun and exciting event, just perfect for the Olympics.

As it stands, it looks as if the 12 teams in Rio will arise from the top six teams from the HSBC Sevens World Series in 2015, plus host nation Brazil, plus the winners of five regional qualifiers - which makes it tough for Hong Kong as we will be up against our perennial jinx Japan who have beaten us in the gold medal matches at the last Asian Games (2010) and the East Asian Games (2009).

Four extra places, if it was a 16-team tournament, would make a massive difference.

And unlike soccer, the big names in world rugby could turn up. IRB president Bernard Lapasset told the media at the cocktail party that the Southern Hemisphere contest in 2016 may be shifted to free up top players for the Olympics. Lapasset said rugby needed its stars when the sport returned to the Olympics and by tinkering with the calendar, it would allow Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina to pick their best 15-a-side players to play alongside the specialised sevens stars if each union chose to do so.

It is up to the IRB to tackle the issue with the IOC, keeping in mind the Olympics needs rugby sevens as much as the sport needs the Olympics.