Rugby 7s roar into Rio and dazzle a new Olympic-sized audience
Canadian women win bronze in fast-paced sport's inaugural Olympic appearance
The world waits for a return to sport.
It may take some time to resume the games we play and enjoy as spectators.
Even then, the spectre exists that the "new normal" for sport may involve stadiums with few or no fans in the stands while professional leagues struggle to stage their competitions against a sort of homogenized, centralized, isolation in made-for-TV events.
Then again, it's better than no sport at all which is what we've had to endure for the last five weeks or so.
WATCH | Olympic Games Replay: Rio 2016 Rugby 7s
As we continue to overcome the ultimate rival, COVID-19, we once more delve into the vault to recall great sport from the past.
Saturday, May 9, is the eighth of several weeks of programming at CBC Sports which showcases some of the most memorable moments from various editions of the Olympics, both winter and summer.
Episode No. 8 of Olympic Games Replay features the debut sport of rugby sevens for both men and women at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
WATCH | Canada earns inaugural rugby sevens Olympic bronze:
New traditional, team sports are not often admitted to the modern Olympic program because the International Olympic Committee is striving to keep the number of athletes down and make the Games more sustainable.
But just as the individual sports of karate, surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding hope to make a splash at the Tokyo Olympics, rugby sevens was a big hit in Rio in 2016.
The thrill of 'Sevens'
It was not until the Commonwealth Games of 1998 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia that the fast-moving game was contested at a major, international, multi-sport event.
It found instant success because the first global superstar of rugby, Jonah Lomu of New Zealand, led his team to the gold medal and enraptured fans in what was a lightning-quick tournament conducted over the course of just two days.
At Toronto 2015, the curtain went up for rugby sevens on the Pan American Games stage in front of wildly partisan fans at BMO Field — which was known as Exhibition Stadium over the course of those Games.
"Going to Pan Ams was a brand new experience for us, one that helped give us a small idea of what the Olympics would be like," said Ashley Steacy, who starred for the Canadian women in Toronto.
"I remember the electric feeling playing in the final against the USA and then watching the men play Argentina. It was an intense journey with the highest highs and the lowest lows."
WATCH | Canadian women hunting 7s gold in Tokyo:
Steacy, who had played rugby since high school Grade 10 in Lethbridge, Alta., went on to become the Canadian university player of the year twice while leading the Pronghorns to three national championships. Along the way, she helped Canada win silver at the Sevens World Cup in 2013 in Moscow and survived shoulder surgery in advance of the Pan Am Games, as well as a torn ACL six months before Rio which almost caused her to miss the Olympics.
"Training in our centralized program was amazing but also very difficult at the same time and I haven't found anything like it since retirement," recalled Steacy, who played her last game in 2017 and is now a cattle rancher just west of Saskatoon, Sask., with her husband Sean.
"Working with like-minded people towards the same goal and pushing each other every single day to be the absolute best you can be was a highlight for me. On the flip side, it was highly competitive. It's a delicate situation trying to keep that fine balance between teammate and competitor."
Building popularity in Canada
In Rio, the Canadian women made it all come together and lost only two matches over the course of their three-day tourney. One was to Great Britain in pool play and the other was in the semi-final as they were edged by the eventual gold medallists from Australia.
The Canadians rebounded to thump Great Britain 33-10 and claim the bronze medal. There was a joyous celebration and a treasured scene as the captain, Jen Kish, was hauled up into the stands by her jubilant father, Steve, who had been snapping photos throughout.
"She was up front with the notion that they were excited to get people to fall in love with the sport," Mitch Peacock, who called rugby sevens play-by-play for CBC, said of a conversation he had with Kish before the Olympics.
"Kish also said the side felt Rio was the right stage to raise the bar for the sport in Canada and she loved the idea of having the whole country behind them."
WATCH | Jen Kish talks about Olympic bronze and the rise of rugby 7s:
And it was the nature of the sport itself that turned fans on. Rugby sevens sees plenty of scoring and each match has the potential to conjure up rapid changes in fortune where, ultimately, anything can happen.
"The pace, athleticism, fitness and decision-making of the players jumps out at you," Peacock estimated.
"Plus, with seven competitors per side on a big surface it seems like offence is always imminent and a team is rarely out of it. Factor in the 15-minute matches and you can't take your eyes off of it."
Fiji strikes unforgettable gold
On the men's side, Canada did not qualify a team for the Olympic debut in Rio although they have made the grade for the Tokyo Games. Still, a highlight worth reliving is the victory by the team from Fiji.
Representing a tiny nation in the South Pacific with a population of less than a million, the Fijians overcame their one-time colonial masters, Great Britain, 43-7 in the championship match to capture gold — and, in the process, won the country's first medal of any kind in 60 years of Olympic competition.
Afterwards, they provided one of the most cherished moments of the Rio 2016 Games as the team gathered arm-in-arm to triumphantly sing a gospel hymn of victory with tears streaming down their faces.
Rugby sevens in Rio caused a stir and won many new followers internationally. Nowhere was the impression the sport made at the Olympics more profound than it was back home in Canada.
"I think the impact we had as a team, winning the bronze medal in Rio, really catapulted rugby sevens to the forefront of Canadian sports," Steacy reckoned.
"I think it got the attention of the nation and I believe we inspired a whole generation of young females to want to try rugby. It is truly something special to pour your heart and soul into something you are so passionate about and then be able to share that love for the game with so many people around the world."