Rugby has a chequered history as an official Olympic event, it was first featured as a 15s competition at the Paris Olympic Games in 1900. Even though the Olympic Games are held every 4 years the rugby event followed an erratic pattern of not competing in 1904, appearing in the 1908 London games, then missing the 1912 games followed by the WWI interruption and returning to the Olympics in 1920 and in 1924 still playing 15-a-side rugby. However, during all the appearances there was only 2 or 3 men’s teams competing and when staunch rugby fan Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Olympic Games retired in 1925 the IOC, International Olympics Committee voted to exclude rugby as an official event, this was in part due to a pitch invasion during the Paris 1924 games but mainly due to the lack of teams even though rugby drew large crowds of spectators being the world’s most popular sport at that time, so, the 1928 games in Antwerp and 1932 Los Angeles edition rugby was side-lined. Oddly enough, the Berlin Olympics of 1936 saw an appeasement and a trial rugby event was introduced which saw 4 countries: Italy, Germany, Romania and France battling it out for the gold medal. France were the victors by beating Germany in the final. That year proved to be the end of rugby as an Olympic sport along with WWII cancelling the games until 1948 but rugby was put on the shelf to gather dust. There were several attempts to regain Olympic recognition, Italy tried to reinstate rugby for the 1960 Rome games and the Soviet Union in 1980 with S. Korea in 1988 asking for rugby to be included but all were unsuccessful.
Many European rugby federations were already members of the National Olympic Committees and had been pushing to get rugby back into the games but it was not until 1994 that the argument to recognise rugby as an Olympic sport began to gather momentum. Rugby had spread throughout all the world’s continents and the IOC began to see that the values of rugby mirrored the Olympic Spirit which Monsieur de Coubertin enshrined when he initiated the games back in 1896.
The then IRB (International Rugby Board) was recognised by the IOC and finally in 2002 rugby and 2 further sports, golf and Wushu, a Chinese martial art were officially inducted into future Olympic Games. The new official rugby event programmed for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics adopted the increasingly popular 7s format instead of 15s. Rugby 7s had a proven track record and organising tournaments with a total game time of 14 minutes attracted a lot more countries to register. In fact, Rio had 12 men’s teams and for the first time in Olympic history 12 women’s teams all competing for a coveted Olympic gold medal. The same tournament set up was repeated for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 even though it actually took place in 2021 due to the C-19 pandemic.
So, in the entire 124 year history of the Olympic Games the glorious sport of rugby has had only 8 events, 6 for the men and 2 for women’s rugby. The 15s medal winners, however, throw up some surprises as USA Rugby holds the record for gold medal wins with 2 in total while France the winner of 1 gold and 2 silver medals as the team to win most medals. Australia has 1 medal to its credit, a gold and Great Britain 2 silvers with Germany on 1 silver and Romania winning 1 bronze medal from the early 20th century Olympic Games. In the 2016 Rio Rugby Men’s 7s saw Fiji claim the gold beating Great Britain who took silver and S. Africa bronze after winning against Japan. The women’s 7s gold medal went to Australia after a thrilling and close game versus N. Zealand claiming silver and Canada the bronze after beating Great Britain decisively 33-10 points.
The decision to bring rugby back to the Olympics was nurtured by the fact that many emerging rugby nations around the world had more 7s teams than 15s and, therefore, a wider spectrum of countries were enthusiastic enough to apply or enrol in competitions to qualify for the Olympics. The decision on 7s was wholeheartedly supported by the now WR, World Rugby (ex-IRB) governing body and the IOC. In the 2020 (2021) Tokyo Olympic Games we will see men and women’s teams from some countries not usually associated with rugby like Kenya, Brazil, China and S. Korea. Fiji or The Flying Fijians as they are commonly referred to, and rightly so, won their country’s 1st ever Olympic medal and a gold one too in Rio. This amazing team outshone the GBR team in the final running out victorious 43 points to 7 and returned home proud heroes, this encapsulates the Spirit of Rugby and the reason why Pierre de Coubertin who was a rugby referee before instigating the Olympic movement to bring together nations through ability, honour and passion. Since the inauguration of the International Olympic Committee of 1896 we have seen new modern sports included such as snowboarding, skateboarding and even football plus the introduction of the Winter Olympic Games and the Paralympics which includes Wheelchair Rugby.
Let’s be honest, the Olympic Games without rugby was never complete, now it is. Og btw- if you'd like to feel the excitement of taking part in another absolutely great international rugby gig, then don't hesistate and join in in the Krakow Rugby Festival 2022 "post pandemic" edition