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UPCOMING OLYMPIC GAMES

Tokyo 2020 #1YearToGo

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Cartan Global | Tokyo 2020

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It was little wonder the faces of the smattering of International Olympic Committee (IOC) members who attended the first-ever men’s rugby sevens gold medal match at the Games were adorned with smiles.

The likes of President Thomas Bach and his Executive Board colleagues were clearly enjoying the high-octane action the thriving sport has to offer, even if the final itself was somewhat of a demolition job as Fiji steamrollered their way to their first-ever Olympic gold medal with victory over Britain.

But there was perhaps an underlying reason for their perpetuous grins.

At some point next year – no-one really knows when, despite the IOC stressing the transparency of the process – the Executive Board will decide whether rugby sevens, as well as golf, has an Olympic future post Tokyo 2020. They could, and unquestionably should, grant the sport a place on the programme beyond the Olympics in the Japanese capital.

It is a choice which should be as easy as they come. After all, the exhibition displayed by rugby sevens at Rio 2016 has been nothing short of magnificent.

What a relief that will be for the IOC Executive Board, the ruling power within sport’s most exclusive club, which is still reeling from the aftershock of arguably the most challenging decision they have ever had to make concerning the extent of Russian participation at this year’s Olympics

While many still feel they got that one wrong, there is surely no danger of them making the unpopular call when the item of rugby sevens’ Olympic prospects is on the agenda.

Rarely has a sport had such a discernible and tangible effect on the Games as a whole than rugby sevens, which provided six days of pulsating competition across both the men’s and women’s tournaments.

With their remarkable stamina and silky skills, the players demonstrated all that is good about their sport, opening the eyes of many who might not have even been aware of its existence before it made its explosive entrance onto the Olympic stage, leaving a memorable imprint on Rio 2016.

There’s little doubt it is a perfect fit for the Olympics, with its short, sharp matches providing gripping entertainment which those more traditional sports must yearn for on a daily basis. No delays in decision-making. No confusion over judging. Just pure, thoroughbred competition.

The unpredictability of it all is another large green tick in the positives column. Yes, the men’s and women’s favourites - Fiji and Australia - both topped their respective podiums but who thought Japan could beat South Africa? Who predicted New Zealand’s men would exit the event at the last eight stage?

This particular element was captured perfectly in the men’s quarter-finals, which were all wonderful standalone pieces of theatre, culminating in the last contest between Britain and Argentina. Although there was no score in the regulation time, the match-up was laced with tension throughout and was won by Britain in dramatic circumstances.

First, the South Americans missed a kick which would have sent them through to the semi-finals before Britain struck the post with an effort of their own. Fortunately for Team GB, they were able to find the winning try in the sudden death period to book a place in the historic gold medal encounter.

Not only that, the entirety of the men’s and women’s matches were played in true Olympic spirit.

Let’s not forget that these gladiators regularly smash into one another but will then shake hands, get up and move on, displaying an almost blanket showing of respect for their opponents, for the rules and for the officials.

If any sport embraces the Olympic ideals, it is rugby sevens. That won’t have gone unnoticed by Bach and the rest of the IOC, who have been more keen than ever to stress those particular values still exist as the scandal involving Russian doping continues to cloud over the Movement.

Nothing is ever perfect, as we know, and there would have been plenty for World Rugby to think about, particularly surrounding how they build on the largely successful platform laid down in the Brazilian city.

Of course, the governing body would have liked to have seen fuller stadia and more bums on seats but that has proven a problem for every sport at Rio 2016.

There will also be those who are fearful rugby sevens might dilute the prominence of the 15s game, but there are always such dissenting voices lingering in the background. Change frightens people, after all.

It doesn’t appear as though rugby will face the same issues as cricket, where the Twenty20 format seems to have eaten into the reserves and the standing of the Test version, traditionally seen as the highest echelon in the game, with perhaps irreversible consequences. Rugby 15s and sevens can happily co-exist and grow together.

Such examples have already been well-documented, with a number of 15s stars, most notably New Zealand’s World Cup winner Sonny-Bill Williams, whose Rio 2016 campaign unfortunately ended in disappointment through injury during his first match, embracing the format of its younger brother.

Perhaps it is time others followed in rugby's footsteps. Sports such as hockey, which nearly lost its Olympic place three years ago and remains in danger of being cut from the Games in the eyes of many, may be looking to take a leaf out of rugby’s book by pumping more funding and placing more impetus on its shorter format, hockey 5s. They cannot afford to stand still, watching idly by as those around them adapt and change to fit better within the competitive sporting arena.

Perhaps it is time others experienced the "halo effect" enjoyed by rugby sevens at Rio 2016, as eloquently spoken by World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont.

“It has been an honour to be back on sport's greatest stage and we are incredibly proud of our superb men's and women's players,” he said.

“Over six exciting days of rugby, they have showcased the very best of our sport and its character-building values, demonstrating why we believe it is a perfect fit for the Olympic Games.

“Since being voted back on to the programme in 2009, we have seen participation double to 7.73 million and we are determined to maximise the Rio 2016 halo effect.”

At the culmination of the men's final, IOC sports director Kit McConell, who held a similar position within the International Rugby Board before it was rebranded, was involved in an enthusiastic and warm embrace with former World Rugby President Bernard Lapasset.

Though Bach snuck out the back door before the medals were presented, he would have done so safe in the knowledge that what had played out before him was enough of a reason to continue the IOC's Olympic relationship with rugby sevens, which still remains in its infancy.

Though there are challenges and obstacles that lie ahead for both parties as they attempt to take full advantage of a triumphant Olympic bow, those grins among the IOC are unlikely to fade away.

Rugby sevens may just have returned the smiles to the faces of the IOC - and there's no reason to suggest that will change anytime soon.

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