Lapasset mission to have rugby in 2016 Olympics

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The Independent Online

Rugby's most powerful administrator has a favourite method of clearing his head when it comes to contemplating the game's pressing challenges. Bernard Lapasset gets on his bike. After his daily cycle in the foothills of the French Pyren-ees near the family home in Tarbes, the chairman of the International Rugby Board settled on his three priorities for 2009. Surprisingly for some, perhaps, the first is to get rugby readmitted to the Olympics.

"The vote on which sports, if any, will be added to the Olympic Games for 2016 takes place in October," said Lapasset. "This year is a very important one for rugby to take a big step in its development, as we are growing more and more professional. There are three key issues, and the first of these is to be in the Olympics. There are 205 national Olympic committees and we need to grow the game around the world."

The second issue, said Lapasset, was the continuing adaptation of rugby's regulations to protect the game's "specificity" in its development as a professional sport. "And the third priority is to name the hosts for Rugby World Cup 2015 and 2019 [in June], and be well-positioned for sponsorship, TV and commercial programmes." He did not rule out a further reduction in the guarantee required from tendering unions, given the "difficult" global economy.

The Olympics are close to Lapasset's heart; he was a vice-chairman of France's Olympic Committee for 20 years and he has led the campaign for rugby's inclusion, which would be in the sevens format, with vigour. He has known Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee's president, since Rogge was a teenaged flanker playing for Belgium. "The problem is not just Jacques, the problem is to convince all 117 IOC members," said Lapasset, who led a presentation to the IOC in Lausanne in November.

He took along the former Argentina captain Agustin Pichot, and entered the debating chamber after squash and before baseball. The other sports vying for the maximum two available places (it could be one or none) are softball, karate, golf and roller sports.

Rugby has been refused three times before – it was last played in the Olympics in 1924 – but Lapasset insisted there is hope. "The perception of rugby changed after the 2007 World Cup in France. I went to Beijing last summer and met about 80 IOC members. They said the World Cup presented a fantastic picture of camaraderie, respect and big crowds enjoying themselves. Four or five years ago they used to say, 'Oh, rugby, it's just a game for the gentleman, and the English-speaking gentleman at that'."

Apart from worldwide exposure to attract new players, the dividend for rugby is government funding, which in many countries goes only to Olympic sports. "It is important for the IOC that small countries like Fiji could be competing for a gold medal," argued Lapasset. "We propose three days of rugby involving teams from every continent in full stadiums, with young sportsmen and women playing with fun."

A combined British team are likely to meet less opposition in rugby than football. The first requirement is a compelling final presentation to the IOC executive in June before the October vote in Copenhagen.