AS THE RIO 2016 Olympic Games approach, bringing with it rugby’s return to the Olympic programme after an absence of 92 years, the sport is experiencing exceptional growth and recognition worldwide. As we stand shoulder to shoulder with other international federations within the Olympic movement, we can reflect on where we have come from and how far the game has developed in a short space of time.
We campaigned for Olympic Games inclusion because we understood the profound and positive effect it would have in achieving our strategic mission statement of growing the global rugby family. It is now less than four months until our top men’s and women’s sevens players take to the field at the Deodoro Olympic Park to showcase our exciting sport to the world, heralding a new era of rugby as an Olympic sport and changing the rugby landscape forever.
There is no doubt that rugby’s re-inclusion in the Olympic Games was one of the most significant events in the sport’s history. Participation numbers have doubled since rugby was awarded an Olympic place seven years ago and we now have 7.7 million players across 120 member unions worldwide, with women, our fastest growing sector, now representing 30 per cent of that total. Our development, as a result of the decision by the International Olympic Committee executive committee members in 2009, has quite simply been game-changing.
Our goal over the next six months is to use the golden opportunity of a place on sport’s greatest stage to reach out even further, to engage and inspire new audiences in record numbers, break into new markets and cement our place as a truly global sport. Already we have seen the staggering impact the status of being an Olympic sport has made on the development of the game.
Rugby now benefits from automatic inclusion on school and university curricula across new and emerging markets such as Brazil, China, Canada and the US, where increased access to scholarships is helping rugby to become the fastest growing team sport in what is the world’s biggest commercial sports market. It has opened the door to greater global revenue streams, with our unions benefiting from increased National Olympic Committee and government support, funding and greater access to elite, high-performance facilities, along with Olympic solidarity grants for development programmes.
The effects of the Olympic connection have yet to be fully realised, but our mission to grow the sport beyond our traditional family and fan base is becoming a reality. In Brazil, through outreach programmes like Get into Rugby and Impact Beyond, we are seizing the chance to nurture the game. In 2015 more than 100,000 children were introduced to rugby and that number is set to grow, with rugby already one of the fastest-growing team sports in the country.
Despite this unprecedented period of growth, rugby remains true to its values. Guided by our strong set of character-building values, World Rugby has not lost sight of the core principles of our sport and we continue to stand by strong and transparent governance that promotes inclusivity, robust anti-corruption and antidoping programmes that protect our players and community, along with our leading player welfare initiatives that place the health and safety of our players at the heart of our sport.
We take our responsibilities as an Olympic sport seriously and are firm in our resolve to be a good partner of the Olympic movement. We actively participated in the Agenda 2020 process and are involved with collective sports policy and working groups in order to share our knowledge, expertise and best practice on betting, player welfare, finance and insurance.
Rugby is in great shape and not just from Olympic inclusion. Our record-breaking Rugby World Cup in 2015 demonstrated the increased appetite for rugby at all levels of the game. England 2015 was the most competitive and compelling, best attended, most viewed, most socially-engaged, economically-impactful and commercially-successful rugby event ever. We are excited about staging the tournament in Asia for the first time at Japan 2019.
On a personal note, as I turn to new challenges with my ongoing role as co-chairman of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games bid, I am proud to say that rugby has never been healthier. It has been an honour to be part of the sport as it has grown and developed over the past eight years, and I am eager to see what lies ahead for the sport. But right now, in this Olympic year, all eyes are firmly focused on Rio and rugby fully intends to make the most of its golden moment.