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The seven years between the announcement that rugby would rejoin the Olympics and the first kickoff in Rio seemed more like decades. Think back to 2009, when the IOC voted yes on rugby – the Black Eyed Peas had the top song on the charts, the second season of Breaking Bad was airing, Jone Naqica was still actively playing for the Eagles and Carlin Isles was three years from touching a rugby ball for the first time. Madison Hughes was a 15-year-old student living in England, where Mike Friday was working as a businessman instead of a rugby coach, and the USA 7s was still being held in San Diego.
From then through Rio, I wrote countless stories on up-and-coming Olympic hopefuls, including this introduction to Isles. There were stories about coaches being hired, fired and re-hired. The Olympic development academies were hatched and subsequently morphed. An entire women’s 7s World Series was born. And college 7s became not just a thing, but a really big thing. All because rugby was going to be in the Olympics.
Think back over that time yourself, can you tally the occasions you woke up at odd hours of the morning to watch Matt Hawkins or Vanesha McGee represent the USA at the international level, or how many times you tried to leverage rugby’s newfound Olympic inclusion when talking to a potential sponsor for your club, the athletic director at your school or in trying to recruit that stud athlete from the gym? Probably not.
For all that build up, all that anticipation, the Games sure did fly by. Even now, just a couple of weeks removed, the six days of competition seem like a blur. But I’m going to try to put them in perspective.
Let’s start with the media coverage. From the very beginning, the hope was that Team USA would do at least well enough to get rugby some great exposure, helping to add fuel to the fire of the game’s growth. From stories about Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots wearing Nate Ebner t-shirts and taking a break to watch the Eagles during training camp, to the women performing an in-studio lineout with a TV host, to Matthew McConaughey watching the games from the sideline and Buzz Aldrin from the stands, and women’s rugby athletes being among the most matched on Tinder, that mission was accomplished.
Sure, the games could have been on NBC proper in primetime, and the TV ratings were down from London 2012. But the streaming numbers were way up, and that’s the nature of being in a 41-sport event in this day in age. Bottom line – anyone being pessimistic about the coverage of Olympic rugby in the United States is simply a misanthrope.
As for the results, well, we all wanted and hoped for more, so did the players, coaches and administrators. But it needs to be put into perspective. If, in 2009, you said the men were going to finish the competition 3-2, missing out on the quarterfinals by a single point and a bogus Argentine try, and that they were going to play gold-winning Fiji as hard as anyone, we’d have all taken it.
If we’re being realistic, in 2009, or even 2012, we would have been elated to just be in the dance. When Mike Friday took over, the United States Olympic committee’s number crunchers gave the men’s team just a 10-percent chance of even qualifying for Rio, and there was a serious threat of the team losing USOC funding. Then Friday turned the team around, some great athletes and players emerged and some breakthrough results gave us hope that the Eagles could medal.
On the women’s side, the prognostication was better earlier, as they reached the semifinals of the 2009 World Cup. But coaching turmoil and player unrest, as well as a purge of veterans and an influx of new crossover athletes, resulted in a backslide. In the 12 months leading up to Rio, the team went through three head coaches, spurring cynicism surrounding how well the Eagles could do.
They reached the quarterfinals, played gold-winning Australia closer than anyone, and did better against silver-winning New Zealand than all but the Aussies. All things considered, it was a performance to be proud of for Team USA.
In the moment, we saw individual plays that led to both of the American teams returning home without medals, and those moments won’t be easy to get over. They make us wonder what could have been. But if you zoom out and look at the last nine years as a whole, you realize that the Eagles did about as well as could reasonably be expected given their circumstances.
And I think if you’re being honest, the results were indicative of just where we are as a rugby nation at the moment. We have incredible, world-class athletes any team would love to have in its ranks – Alev Kelter, Perry Baker, Jessica Javelet, Madison Hughes, so on and so on. But we are also frustratingly inconsistent, and that makes for dangerous, but unpredictable, teams and results.
This is also where we deserve to be, to be honest. There were so many mistakes made along the way, so many missteps. Mike Friday should have been hired a year earlier. The women’s coaching situation was an avoidable abortion. We didn’t make full-time professionals of our 7s athletes until two years after the Olympic announcement, and we never paid them competitively enough to keep them from pursuing marginal contracts overseas or regular nine-to-fives.
So, while we can all be proud of everyone who put their life on hold, made sacrifices and stepped between the lines, and we can be elated and excited about what the Olympic exposure might do going forward, we also need to be honest with ourselves as a rugby nation that we didn’t quite put our best foot forward. Tokyo is just four years away. We had seven to get ready for Rio, and if we could go back, there are some things we’d do differently. Let’s embrace, celebrate and milk the positives from Rio, but let’s also learn from the mistakes and get the next one right to assure we’re represented on the podium. That's the best way to put Rio in the rear view.