THE opening ceremony of the London Olympics had references to rugby union in it, which correctly reflected the true history of the Games. Rugby tries scored by Wales, Scotland and Ireland (representing Northern Ireland) featured in the section showcasing the tribal components of Great Britain. In the case of England, the video clip showed Jonny Wilkinson kicking the fateful field goal that gave England victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup. I took this to be a sort of double reference. The director of coaching for the Great Britain Olympic team is Clive Woodward, the coach of England at the 2003 World Cup.
For the education of the clueless Channel Nine commentary team on the opening night, who did not get these rugby references, here is some information that connects the history of the modern Olympics with the game of rugby. The main point here is that rugby union was almost as much an inspiration to Baron Pierre de Coubertin in the founding the modern Olympics as the ancient Games at Olympia were.
De Coubertin was obsessed with the ''muscular Christianity'' values espoused through rugby at Rugby School. He believed rugby was the ideal game to develop a manly French youth capable of standing up to the growing threat of the German war machine. He was one of the founders of rugby in France, and refereed the first French national championship final in 1893 in Paris. Rugby, through his insistence, was made an Olympic sport at the Paris Olympics in 1900. France won the gold medal, and Great Britain and Germany shared the silver.
Rugby was an Olympic sport in 1908 in the first London Games, at the 1920 Antwerp Games and finally at the 1924 Paris Olympics. It is sometimes asserted that rugby was dropped because a United States team (essentially a side from Stanford University) won gold against France in both 1920 and 1924. There might be something in this. But 1924 also coincided with de Coubertin's retirement as president of the International Olympic Committee. The current president, Jacques Rogge, played rugby for Belgium. On his watch, rugby returns as an Olympic sport in the Sevens format at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. There is a happy circularity in this outcome.
Australia's first gold medal for a team sport was won by the Wallabies at the 1908 Games. Rising to the occasion, as they did in the 1991 and 1999 World Cup tournaments, the Wallabies defeated Cornwall (representing England) 32-3, scoring eight tries on a field that ran alongside the 110 yard Olympic swimming pool. Two men with long poles (water ball boys?) fished the ball out of the pool when it was kicked in, as frequently happened. Dan Carroll, a dashing winger for the 1908 Wallabies, later coached the United States to win its two gold medals for rugby, in 1920 (and played, as well) and in 1924. Carroll is one of the few Australians to have won two Olympic gold medals.
This week I chatted with Karl Schubert from the ARU about preparations for the Rio Games. The national men's Sevens side is one of the few sides that plays all of the tournaments on the IRB circuit. Coached by the former Wallabies great Michael O'Connor, the side won a tournament this year despite the fact it is an extremely young team. In two weeks, at North Sydney Oval, it hosts the Oceania Sevens Championship.
The ARU, as well, sees a huge opportunity in developing women's rugby through an expanded Sevens program. Last Friday, 50 schoolgirls were assessed for their rugby potential at Redfern. The notion behind this, as with the annual Ellas Sevens Tournament, is that indigenous youngsters have the potential to be terrific Sevens players. On Friday afternoons, too, primary school kids play organised Sevens games at Centennial Park. A number of high schools around Sydney are promoting Sevens tournaments in a program that involves hundreds of kids.
The first Women's Sevens World Cup in 2009 was won by Australia. There are echoes of the 1908 Wallabies in this golden triumph.