Five-ring Circus

Team USA Is on Its Way to Olympic Glory—in Rugby?

Look out, New Zealand! Well, at least in this one, highly modified version that they play at the Games.

Carlin Isles in a rugby uniform jumping and holding the ball in his right arm, with red and blue laser lights illustrated as twisting by his legs
American rugby sevens star Carlin Isles on Nov. 20, 2019, in West Hollywood, California. Harry How/Getty Images

The United States was once an Olympic rugby powerhouse. Sure, only two countries (the U.S. and France) entered teams in the 1920 Games. And sure, only three (the U.S., France, and Romania) entered them in 1924. But when the Americans played Olympic rugby in the ’20s, they kicked international ass. In both the 1920 and ’24 gold medal matches, we ate up the French like a moist croissant, shellacking them by a combined score of 25–3.

Then, rugby stopped being an Olympic sport. The American destruction of the French team in 1924—when the Games were played in Paris—sparked a pitch invasion by furious French spectators. The stampede resulted in several injured spectators and is commonly thought to have sullied rugby’s reputation within the International Olympic Committee. The next year, Pierre de Coubertin, the IOC president who had championed rugby’s inclusion in the modern Olympics, stepped down. One way or another, rugby was out of the program.

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Then, something else happened: The United States faded from rugby prominence. It’s not entirely clear why, but multiple factors could have contributed. The lack of an Olympic competition robbed the sport of a high-level stage prospective rugby players could aspire to reach. The sport doesn’t have a big professional league in the United States. There are college rugby teams, but scholarships are limited and the NCAA only sanctions a few women’s teams. Rugby has lots of competition from other sports, and around the time rugby left the Olympic program, Americans were beginning to settle en masse on another sport to quench our thirst for bloodlusting games in which a ball is matriculated down a field. Football’s rise in the mid–20th century could not have helped American rugby.

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Today, our national teams are not in the inner circle of elite rugby squads. The American men are ranked 16th in the world and are a nonfactor at the premier global competition, the Rugby World Cup, where their all-time record is 3–22. The women are ranked sixth, and while they won their inaugural World Cup in 1991, they are now a ways behind the giants of the sport.

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Yet the 2020 Games are here, and the United States has a real chance to medal in both the men’s and women’s competitions. Pre-tournament betting odds gave both the men and women just a little bit less than a 50 percent chance to reach the podium. The chances one of the American teams gets there are downright good. What changed? It wasn’t so much that Americans suddenly got a lot better at rugby, but that the IOC decided to bring rugby back in a format that turns out to be highly advantageous to American rugby. Indeed, in rugby sevens, which the IOC introduced at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, the stars and stripes might just be a burgeoning force.

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Conventional rugby, or rugby union, is the 15-player-a-side version of the sport that appeared in the Summer Olympics of the early 20th century. It is also the rugby of the World Cup, where the United States tends to get crushed. A traditionalist would call rugby union the “real” rugby. But rugby union isn’t exactly a fit for today’s Olympics. It is a brutal game, with 30 players sharing a pitch and making crunching, constant contact inevitable over an 80-minute match. For that reason, the 20-team men’s World Cup in 2019 took six weeks to play. The Olympics can’t accommodate the recuperation time to stage a proper rugby union tournament, and rugby advocates were specifically pushing for sevens’ inclusion long before the IOC added it in 2016. The Olympic sevens tournaments take just a few days from start to finish.

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A more conspiratorially minded person would note that the IOC loves television ratings and media interest, and those metrics might be higher for a version of rugby that the United States is good at. (Not this writer, though; I’d never suggest the IOC didn’t have all of sport’s best interests at heart.) In the seven-player rendition of the sport, the Americans are drastically improved. In 2019—the last year of international matches before COVID-19 interrupted the calendar—the U.S. men’s sevens team finished ranked second in the world. It finished the 2020 season ranked seventh. The women’s team was second in ’19 and fifth in ’20. Those were high water marks for both teams in annual sevens series competitions, a slate of international events. The men’s series dates back to 1999, and the women’s started in 2012.

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The trick appears to be speed. Sevens matches are played on the same full-sized pitch (around 100-by-70 meters) as union matches, and the drop from 30 total players to 14 means lots of room to roam. Sevens matches are much shorter than union matches (14 minutes instead of 80), which rewards teams that can run faster for shorter periods of time. It also means less of a chance for big, brutish teams to physically wear down their opponents over long matches. The U.S. men’s team’s biggest star is Carlin Isles, a former elite sprinter and NFL practice squad player who now provides much of Team USA’s offense. Isles is often styled as the Fastest Man in Rugby. The women’s team has former Wisconsin hockey and soccer player Alev Kelter, who was second in the world in international tries scored last season. (The try is the primary scoring play in both rugby sevens and union, where a player runs the ball down the field and holds it against the ground in the tryzone. Think “rugby touchdowns,” and you’ve got it.)

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The Americans are built to succeed in speed-based sports. We’re dominant in a range of track-and-field events, and it’s natural that rugby sevens would be a good landing spot for some of our fastest athletes. And as the Ringer’s Rodger Sherman recently explained, the men’s national rugby team has deliberately sought out former football players and those nearing the end of their gridiron careers, believing them to be useful rugby sevens players.

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The sevens tournament in Tokyo moves quickly. The men’s and women’s competitions both have a World Cup soccer–style group stage, with 12 teams divided into three groups of four, after which the top two teams in each group—plus two third-place finishers—advance to the quarterfinals. The American men have already punched their ticket with wins against Kenya and Ireland on Monday. The U.S. women are in a pool with Australia (the No. 2 team in the world last season), Japan (No. 11), and China (No. 13), in a tournament that starts Thursday. They can advance simply by beating the teams they should beat, even if the Aussies beat them.

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The United States remains far from the preeminent power in sevens. In the men’s game, New Zealand and Fiji more or less trade off as the top nations, while the Kiwis and Australians perennially hold the top spots on the women’s side. And we remain miles from international glory in old-school rugby union. Maybe that will change someday, though. Rugby should be popular in the United States. It’s got brutal violence! And football-esque strategy! And unlike in American football, you can see the players’ faces! It’s not hard to imagine one of the U.S. teams in Tokyo capturing some hearts and minds, given the bright lights of the Olympics and Americans’ flavor profile for contact sports. It’s even possible that rugby sevens benefits in the long run if parents steer their kids away from football, though that’d take years to show up.

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USA Rugby, the national governing body, has ambitions to become more of a global player in the sport. It is trying to land a Rugby World Cup hosting bid for some time between 2027 and 2031, something its CEO calls “a benchmark” for American rugby. The men’s event has never visited the Americas; the women’s went to Canada once.

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Efforts to make rugby more a part of the American mainstream could get no bigger boost than the national teams following through on their recent promise and medaling in Tokyo. Pulling that off would not just be a boon for American rugby, but for a quintessentially American way of doing business. No sporting achievement would feel more like us than to take a sport beloved in much of the world which we are not especially good at, specialize in a highly modified version of the game, and end up winning an Olympic medal doing it—while traditionally great rugby nations watch it happen.

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