Photo courtesy of New York Public Library digital collections.
After a 92 year hiatus, rugby has made its way back into the Olympic games. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil will feature a version of rugby called rugby sevens, a faster and less grueling version of the game. For most Americans, rugby is a foreign sport without much of a following, but now it will be played on an international stage. The re-introduction of rugby at the Olympics coincides with the introduction of golf. And while the two sports are polar opposites in physicality, the sports historically have entertained some of the same sectors of society.
Although rugby has shed some of it’s initial classist moldings, the sport still maintains some inklings of social privilege. Created in Rugby, Warwickshire, in the early 19th century, the sport found its first participants at Rugby School and later spread to colleges and universities around the country. Years later, clubs were formed for the athletes and interest grew throughout Britain. Eventually, many of the athletes, especially in the working class North, weren’t able to juggle the demands of work and sport. Northern clubs requested to the federation, the Rugby Football Union, for some sort of financial compensation for the athletes as the sport turned into a national spectacle. But, the administration found playing for any sort of monetary sum a strict misconduct of the predetermined regulations. This led to a schism, as twenty-two northern clubs, its members made up primarily of working class men, left the Rugby Football Union and founded the Northern Union. The Northern Union eventually became known as the Northern Rugby Football League and the two governing bodies have stayed separate since.
Rugby isn’t seen through the same lens in America. The sport made its way over in the mid 19th century and though it sustained a brief period of interest, the sport eventually tapered off in the early 20th century. This came at a time when football rose to the pinnacle of American sports. Although, over the last 50 years, rugby’s popularity has resurged. The USA national team has qualified for several Rugby World Cups, and has booked their participation in this year’s Olympics. Historically, the sport doesn’t have the same sort of importance or background in the United States, but our country’s view of golf does share similarities to the UK’s rugby.
Culturally, golf is a sport for the middle to upper classes. An average round of golf at a public course costs forty dollars, and can run upwards to two, three, four hundred dollars. The sheer development of golf courses requires high financial investment; courses ranging from 10 to 200 million in initial funding. Not to mention the amount it takes to maintain the standard of the course throughout the year. In addition, the equipment to play costs hundreds of dollars, and in most cases, thousands. All in all, golf is not a cheap sport to play. And though the sport isn’t completely shut off from the populous, the requisite amount of financial dedication to play golf can be staggering. Ultimately, the intimidating prices limit the reach of the sport; only those with money can play.
Rugby doesn’t have the same monetary stranglehold as golf, and yet it doesn’t have the same reach. The circular effects of the sport are no where near as far reaching as golf, nor is its economical importance. Professional golfers make a good deal more than rugby players. But this moment in time could mark the beginning of a more universal appreciation for both sports. Rugby and golf will be thrust into a wider light during the Olympic games, and could spell a greater period of success. Golf doesn’t need a larger fan base, but maybe those who were held back from participating will find easier access to the sport. America already has its rugby in football, but rugby seems an excellent counter to football. Football requires a certain amount of equipment, and like golf, the supplies are not cheap. For countries where neither football nor rugby reign, I’m not sure why rugby wouldn’t be the more popular option in a pure sporting decision. Particularly, rugby sevens, the version of rugby being played at the Olympics, which is a faster and less tactical game. Football will stay a behemoth in the United States, but maybe rugby can gain a little more traction in the upcoming years. Who wouldn't want to win an Olympic gold medal?