Only 12 teams to compete at Olympics, but Rogge vows all nations will be treated fairly
International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Dr Jacques Rogge yesterday gave hope to sevens minnows like Hong Kong, who punch well above their weight, that they will not be left out in the cold in the qualifying process for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Rogge said the decision had been made that only 12 countries would compete in the newest sport at the Olympics, despite Hong Kong's world-famous 24-team competition being hailed as a perfect model.
The reaction from Africa to America to Asia on the IOC's decision was unanimous - 12 teams is not enough and there should be a minimum of 16.
Rogge, basking in the glow of his first Hong Kong Sevens, said the Olympic ideals of fair play and a competition for all would not be forgotten when the IOC and the International Rugby Board decide on the qualification system.
'But there will be only 12 men's and 12 women's teams, not like here where there are 24 teams. It has been decided.' Rogge said in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post.
'The model will be different at the Olympics. Sevens will be an important competition but it has to fit with 27 other sports,' said Rogge, who played rugby for the Belgian national team. 'We will adapt the format and look for another system that is very manageable. Rugby sevens will bring added value to the Games and, of course, the Games will bring added value to [sevens] and its development. You know we are an advocate of the fact that if you have a limited list of participating teams you should not go by quality alone. It should not necessarily be automatic spots from a world ranking. We pride ourselves on universality and we want teams from all continents participating. It is a common policy for all sports.'
Rogge cited the case of athletics, saying if they were to take the 10 best 100-metre sprinters in the world, seven or eight of them would be from Jamaica and the US and that is why the IOC restricts the number of athletes to three per country.
'We are open to proposals from the International Rugby Board but first we must work on the development and promotion of the sport. We need more nations playing and the quality will improve. The last phase will be to find the ideal qualifying system and the final format of the games,' added Rogge, who was impressed by both the quality of rugby on show yesterday and the atmosphere at Hong Kong Stadium.
IRB director general Mike Miller said they would make a proposal to the IOC on how they believed the qualification system should work.
'It's all about getting the balance right,' he said. 'It has to be open to everyone and have that diversity across the continents.'
The system has to be in place in 2013 and the teams decided six months before the Olympics.
China coach Jiang Xuming and counterparts Al Caravelli (US) and Michael O'Connor (Australia) pleaded for at least a 16-team tournament, while Hong Kong coach Dai Rees said he 'would leave it to the politicians but if it is a 12-team competition I hope Asia gets one spot'.
Jiang said: 'It really should be 16 or 24 teams because from a development prospective, the more teams you have at the Olympics the better. If there are only going to be 12 teams, it's going to make it less attractive. It is not ideal.'
Caravelli said he hoped Rogge and the IOC members at the Sevens yesterday saw the value of a 24-team competition. 'It would be a shame if they were only 12 teams,' Caravelli said. 'There should be 24. I know there are members here from the IOC and hopefully they will see that this will be the greatest team sport to ever play in the Olympics with the fan base it can bring, and also the minnow or smaller nations such as Fiji, Samoa or even Kenya can take part.
'Giving these small countries a chance to medal is huge for them on the world stage. If we truly believe we want to make this sport really global, definitely they should have at least 16 teams.'
O'Connor sad it would be unfortunate for some sides to miss out and it would be highly competitive for those 12 spots. 'Personally, I'd like more, preferably 16,' he said.
South Africa coach Paul Treu added: 'Whether it's 12 teams - and 16 or 24 in the future - the most important thing is we have achieved our goal and we are going to be at the Olympics.'
Additional reporting by Michael Church and Unus Alladin