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Seeking Acceptance, Rugby Gives It a Try

OLYMPICS HELENE ELLIOTT

February 09, 2005|HELENE ELLIOTT

It can't hurt rugby's chances of being added to the Summer Olympics that Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, played for the Belgian national rugby team in his youth.

"We'd like to think it might help," said Greg Thomas, communications manager for the International Rugby Board, "but we know we need to rely on more than that."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Rugby participants -- An article in Wednesday's Sports section about efforts to make rugby an Olympic sport said USA Rugby has about 60,000 members. It has 30,500 members.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 11, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Rugby participants -- An article in Wednesday's Sports section about efforts to make rugby an Olympic sport said USA Rugby has 30,500 members. It has about 60,000 members. A correction Thursday repeated the error made in Wednesday's article.

And so rugby sevens, a variation of the 15-player game, will press its case Saturday and Sunday at the Home Depot Center in the USA Sevens tournament.

Featuring 44 games of fast, physical play, the USA Sevens is the third stop of an eight-event tour. IOC officials are expected to attend and acquaint themselves with the sport and its logistics before the IOC decides in July whether to replace any of the 28 summer sports.

The 15-player version of rugby was on the Olympic program in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924, and the U.S. won the last two gold medals. The seven-man game is on a short list for consideration with golf, squash, roller sports and karate. For every sport adopted an equal number would be dropped; softball, baseball, taekwondo and modern pentathlon may be in jeopardy. The soonest a sport could become part of the Games is 2012.

The IRB has 110 members on five continents. The U.S., with about 22,500 male and 8,000 female players, is one of rugby's last frontiers, as are Russia and China.

Last year's USA Sevens tournament drew about 11,000 people to the Home Depot Center, and organizers hope to double that by emphasizing the game's speed and action -- and its social aspects. Each game consists of two seven-minute halves, with a two-minute intermission. The teams are divided into four pools of four teams each, with the best teams advancing to bracket play Sunday.

"Short, sharp entertainment," Thomas said from the IRB's Dublin, Ireland, headquarters. "You can come, watch a game, go and get something to eat and come back and see another.

"The rugby World Cup is the third-largest international event, behind Olympics and soccer World Cup. We have no pretensions that we're going to be bigger than soccer in the Olympics, but there's a growing popularity of the sport and it has an ethos of friendship and comradeship."

Doug Arnot, chief executive of USA Rugby, ran the venues at the Atlanta Olympics and consulted with venue managers at Sydney, so he's aware that the Summer Olympics already are massive. However, he sees rugby as a good fit.

"I would agree with anyone who says the Summer Games are too big and are a behemoth to manage. But there are some events within sports that don't have a lot of nations competing," he said. "I would contend rugby is more widespread.

"From an organizing committee perspective, I would say I'm much more interested in a sport that would fill stadiums, satisfy sponsors and use fields that exist. You could use soccer fields after soccer preliminaries end. There are all kinds of reasons to say yes, but you never know."

Arnot said he believes acceptance into the Olympics would weaken the resistance rugby faces in the U.S. He said people often dismiss it as a "foreign" sport, much as they do soccer, but don't realize American football evolved from rugby.

"There's a little xenophobia, people looking at this as somebody else's sport. But this is the way everyone else plays," Arnot said. "With the growing number of people playing and the growing number of people that have come to the U.S. from rugby-friendly countries, we see a base-building parallel to soccer."

Thomas said the U.S. has a deep player resource among college football players who don't go to the NFL -- and Tom Billups, coach of the U.S. national team, is a prime example.

A native of Burlington, Iowa, Billups played football at tiny Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., "but knew I'd never play on Sunday." He turned to rugby, playing for the U.S. and in Europe before he became coach of the U.S. team -- known as the Eagles -- in 2001.

Billups said he's one of only four full-time rugby coaches in this country. His players squeeze games between their jobs as mortgage brokers, teachers and medical professionals and rarely practice together. Getting rugby into the Olympics could change that.

"It would be one of the fastest ways to add athletic credibility in America, and add financial resources," Billups said. "We have only limited access to Olympic training facilities now. As opposed to being on the 'B' list, we'd move to the 'A' list."

The sport's Olympic chances, he said, "are as good as they've been in recent times. Our IOC president is a rugby man.... Rugby is the world's contact sport. American football is America's contact sport."

Here and There

The Turin Olympic sliding track at Cesana Pariol will be modified after crashes during training for the luge World Cup final sent four athletes to the hospital last week, including a Brazilian who suffered a severe head injury. The World Cup final, a test event for the Olympics, was canceled.

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