How rugby sevens became an Olympic sport

Humphrey Kayange talks to World Rugby about the “humbling” experience of being part of the team that earned sevens’ inclusion in the Olympic Games.

Humphrey Kayange was preparing for the penultimate event of the 2008-09 World Rugby Sevens Series at Twickenham when he received a momentous request.

An email had pinged into his account inviting the Kenyan to remain in London after the tournament to join the team that would make rugby’s case for inclusion in the Olympic Games.

On the Monday morning, as his Kenya team-mates made their way north to Edinburgh, Kayange sat in a room with then-World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset, Chief Executive Mike Miller, former Argentina captain Agustín Pichot, Kazakhstan captain and referee Anastassiya Khamova and Australia’s Rugby World Cup Sevens winning captain Cheryl Soon.

“For me it was really humbling just knowing that I’ve got a part to play in the process,” Kayange told World Rugby this week. “The people who were in the team were real legends in the sport in their areas.”

Getting to work

The team had less than a month to prepare for their first presentation, to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board in Lausanne in June.

“In my head I had no clue what was going to happen,” Kayange admitted.

“It was a full day, there was a full programme planned out. You got your script so you had to start to go through your script, figure out what you needed to change, what you needed to add. 

“[We had] some trial runs with the team just to see how the team is working, what the question is and just how everyone is playing their part in terms of the bid process. 

“So, we did that for two days, and that’s when it hit me that this is going to be a really big thing because of the intensity that was in the room. 

“Bernard Lapasset, the World Rugby chairman then, Mike Miller, and everyone who was in the room, everyone was just trying to ensure that everything was right for that presentation.”

The team’s hard work paid off and on 13 August, 2009 the IOC Executive Board recommended both rugby sevens and golf for inclusion in the programme for the 2016 Olympic Games.

That recommendation was not binding, however, and the sports now faced a separate vote by the IOC Council on 9 October, needing a majority to confirm their place in Rio.

“We were not favourites for the final vote,” Lapasset conceded recently.

In preparation for the Council vote in Copenhagen, World Rugby added a further sprinkle of star power to its bid team as Jonah Lomu came on board.

‘He was a true legend’

All Blacks legend Lomu had made his name in the 15s game but had also excelled at sevens and understood its value on the global stage having won Commonwealth Games gold in 1998. 

“It would be fantastic for rugby and fantastic for the Games,” Lomu told reporters in the days leading up to the final vote. “Playing in the Commonwealth Games was a major highlight of my career.”

It wasn’t only members of the IOC Council who were wowed by Lomu’s inclusion on the sevens bid team. 

“I grew up looking at guys like Jonah Lomu on the rugby scene,” Kayange recalled.

“Just being in the same room as him and being able to present your story was really humbling. I was really honoured, and excited as well!

“He was a true legend and growing up, when we were playing rugby everybody wanted to be like him.”

Sevens might not have been the favourites in the eyes of Lapasset, but the bid team had grown close in the five months since the initial meeting in London.

According to Khamova, there had been “a lot of smiling, joking but also work” and Kayange remembers there being an optimistic mood ahead of the final vote.

“We were confident that we had a product that could be effective at the Olympic Games but in matters of the presentation we wanted to make sure our message came out right,” Kayange said.

“I felt pretty confident. The video that was made for the bid process, even to me as a player it was emotional. 

“Every time we used to do a run through and that video played, we could almost feel the room go quiet. That just showed that this was something big.”

Kayange was right to feel upbeat and following a passionate presentation, the IOC Council voted 81 to eight to include sevens in the Olympic programme from the 2016 and 2020 Games.

Olympic legacy

Celebrations ensued and although Kayange initially feared that Rio would prove to be “a bit too far for me” he was part of the Kenya squad that competed in Brazil alongside his brother Collins Injera.

“It was unbelievable, for me to get rugby to join the Olympic Games and then actually to be in Rio,” admitted Kayange of his final sevens tournament for Kenya.

“It was a really good start and I’m really excited for the players to experience it again.”

Olympic inclusion has had a huge impact on the game across the globe in terms of increased funding and opportunities for male and female players.

“It’s very important for girls because they’re also included in Olympic Games,” Khamova told Asia Rugby Live this week. 

“In Kazakhstan it’s important that rugby is an Olympic sport, that means more attention, more finance. 

“Now we’re starting to train rugby from six, seven years old.”

To underline that importance, Rio gold medallist Ellia Green has admitted that she might not have played rugby had sevens not been an Olympic sport.

“I think since I was five years old I wanted to make the Olympics in the 100m,” she told World Rugby. “Definitely wasn't in my plan to become a rugby sevens player but I think it was destiny, I do think, to play rugby. 

“I feel extremely lucky to have come into an amazing sport surrounded by amazing people and the relationships that we make in rugby, not just with my own team-mates but with other players, other coaches, the fans, the rugby community is what I love most about the game.

“It is an amazing thing to look back on and see how many girls look up to a lot of our players since having more exposure is more valuable to me than an Olympic gold medal.”

Check out more Olympic content from World Rugby here.

Last updated: Jun 15, 2020 11:56:53 AM
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