When the USA women play their first sevens match of the Rio Olympics against Fiji on Aug. 6, Bob Latham will be watching proudly in the Deodoro Stadium. The USA Rugby chairman, who has been on the board for 22 years, was instrumental in getting sevens into the Games and knows better than most how quickly the game is growing.
Latham, an United States Olympic Committee member from 2000 to 2004, reveals his hopes for the sport, how he helped get sevens into the Olympics and rugby's future in the U.S..
Sevens' inclusion into the Olympics has been a long time coming, talk us through your involvement in getting the sport into the Games.
Bob Latham: I am incredibly excited. It's been the culmination of a lot of work from a lot of people. I'm especially happy for the athletes who will become Olympians -- what a fabulous experience for them and I'm happy that I'll be there to see it.
It wasn't until 1995 that the governance structure of international rugby was conducive to joining the Olympics and once that was in place, my involvement started in 1996 when I was trying to get USA Rugby to be an affiliated member of the U.S Olympics Committee (USOC), the status we got in 1998.
In 2000 I went on the USOC, which is the same time as the then International Rugby Board really ramped up its efforts with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to get into the Olympics. The first goal was to get into the Games by Beijing 2008.
Since I was in rugby the USOC the IRB got me involved me with the international effort with the IOC. So I was pretty heavily involved from 2001 to when we got recognised as an Olympic sport in 2009. It was an interesting, sometimes frustrating path to travel but, ultimately, rewarding.
Was sevens' more accessible format one of the reasons behind it getting into the Olympics?
BL: There were discussions back in the early stages over whether it should be rugby 15s or sevens and whether we should just leave it up to the IOC to decide. But there's no question that the sport of sevens helped sell itself as it's more understandable and the ball spends more time in play. It fits into the Olympic format a lot better as you can play the tournament across three days, as we are doing in Rio.
It's also much more globally competitive and it's easier to become competitive in sevens faster than it is in 15s for developing countries. You've got more global competitiveness, which the IOC like, and the medallists can come from just about any continent. It will be a thrilling competition.
For those who aren't familiar with sevens, I think they'll look at it and think, 'Wow, this is the breakout event of the Rio Games'.
What obstacles did you face in getting sevens into the Olympics?
BL: There are some places that had no rugby history or a great familiarity with the sport. In this country, where there is a strong Olympic presence, there wasn't a great rugby history so that's where we had to do quite a bit of education and getting people on board to why rugby would be a great addition to the Olympics.
There haven't been any sports added to the Olympics since Sydney 2000 until this Games. The IOC got more systematic over how sports could become part of the Games. We had to deal with several iterations of the conditions but again we had the luxury of the sport which could meet any criteria as they developed it. In the end it ended up selling itself but we had to address whatever new plan the IOC had for getting a sport into the Olympics.
Have you set the men's and women's sevens teams medal goals?
BL: When I started this process, the focus was on the exposure this will give rugby in the U.S. if we qualified. But now we are there, it would be great if we medalled. A medal of any kind for either team will be a terrific achievement and that's our goal but if things break right, there's a chance we could take the top step. It would do wonders for the sport in this country if we get a medal of any kind.
Do you feel Olympic sevens will help push rugby into the NCAA consciousness and help the sport grow in the country?
BL: I certainly hope so. It has always been a major, major priority for us to get the sport into the Games as this is an Olympics-mad country. The exposure that any sport gets at the Olympics from spectators, sponsors, avid sports fans, and casual sports fans is just immense. It's partly the spectacle of sport; it's partly the patriotism that plays to the American consciousness as well.
I really feel we will see a spike in interest. Hopefully the fans will get to know both the men's and women's teams as they are an exceptional group of people who have terrific back stories. Once fans see that, they'll gravitate to that. And if we have success then people will gravitate to that. One of the greatest outcomes of this Olympics will be a whole bunch of boys and girls picking up a ball and choosing rugby as their first choice of sport.
Do you hope that 15s and sevens can evolve alongside each other or do you feel one will grow quicker than the other?
BL: We're very lucky that they can grow collectively. We haven't had a legacy in 15s or sevens where it's strong enough that one trumps the other. We have players playing in both codes -- 15s and sevens. As long as people are enjoying rugby then it doesn't matter whether they go through one pathway or another. There is a lot more harmony in the two codes here than there is in other countries.
The exposure sevens gets with the sporting marketplace, school administrators and community administrators will help both codes.
How would you like to see a player like Eagles' back-row and sevens World Series player Danny Barrett balance the two?
BL: He's a good example. The balance we've struck since he's come into prominence and has been picked up by 15s is about right. We have to look at player welfare; we can't over tax the players.
Danny's balance has been pretty good over the last year and a half. One of the things you'd have to factor into that, if you're Danny, is that there is more money in 15s than sevens right now and whether that is part of the dynamic going into the future, I don't know, but there is a draw to making a living out of the sport in 15s.
I know Danny, as well as other sevens players who have played both codes, love sevens and love the team so I hope they continue to satisfy their ambitions in both codes.
What sort of growth has rugby in the USA had over the last few years?
BL: The biggest sign of potential was the All Blacks match back in Nov. 2014 in Chicago. One of the things which was rewarding about that was it was New Zealand playing the U.S. team rather than someone else. That proved to us that the market we thought was brewing was in fact already here.
There are a lot more American rugby fans. We are now in the second and third generation of rugby fans who have played the sport here in the country and their kids have grown up with rugby and have taken an interest in it.
I also feel American sports are taking a more global perspective -- look at soccer and the interest people have here in the Premier League and the increased TV coverage. There is a fan base here for not just U.S.-based teams, but leading rugby teams in the world.
Americans always want to see the best of what's out there so there are opportunities for other matches like New Zealand vs. Ireland in November and maybe Six Nations games held here to get some traction. The choice of time, location and venue is very important, though. We need to be smart about when we play such a match.
And back to the Olympics -- back in 1996 when this idea first started bubbling, did you ever think we'd be in a situation where it is just 10 days until rugby sevens makes its bow in the Games?
BL: I was always optimistic that we'd get here but it's exceeded my expectations. To have both of our teams qualify, from a USA perspective, a heightened interest in the sevens team, a World Series that's terrifically competitive, a women's World Series -- it will be such a great spectacle in Rio.
Look at the excitement it has created and to have players like Sonny Bill Williams in the Olympics; it's just a great thing. In terms of how it's set up for Rio, I hope my expectations go even further when we start playing.