Magazine article The New Yorker

Scrum Again

Magazine article The New Yorker

Scrum Again

Article excerpt

The last time rugby was played at the Olympics, the Americans won the gold. That was in 1924. A team composed largely of Stanford students made the six-thousand-mile trip to Paris on a lark--the sport wasn't really played in America--and crushed the French in the final, 17-3, prompting a mob of drunken French fans to shower the team with rocks and bottles. And so ended rugby in the Olympics.

Rocks and bottles, of course, could be seen as rugby's natural milieu. In the popular conception of the sport, the muddy dogpile of the game itself is merely a preamble to its extended coda: pig roasts, flowing kegs, and a naked, swaying mass of players chanting the lyrics to "Jesus Can't Play Rugby" and "Bestiality's Best."

Yet, with the International Olympic Committee's recent vote to restore rugby for the 2016 Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, USA Rugby is working hard to de-rowdyize the game. On the afternoon of the I.O.C.'s vote, Al Caravelli, a trim, bald man who coaches the men's national squad, the Eagles, explained his plans to about thirty rugby supporters at a celebration in the West Village. "I've been smiling since seven-thirty this morning," Caravelli reported, unsmilingly. Then he got down to business: the need to raise money, improve the team's training, retain the gold medal (which America will have held, in a manner of speaking, for ninety-two years), and serve as role models. "We may not be paid full time like players from some of the other nations, but I expect full-time professionalism." Behind him looped an Eagles' highlight reel of sprinting tries and a single thumping tackle. "The choice for players is: 'Do I want to hang out with my frat buddies and get drunk on a Friday night, or go to the gym and put in my two hours? And then get up and put in two hours' running while those buddies are still sleeping in?' "

The version of the game to be played in Rio is rugby sevens, which features seven-man teams rather than the customary fifteen, and fourteen-minute games, rather than eighty. Sevens is faster and higher-scoring and, Caravelli pointed out after his public remarks, ideal for television: "We can guarantee a commercial every seven minutes. It's designed to appeal to young people, and really change the image of the game--open, modern, clean." So why was the celebration being held in a pub called Mr. Dennehy's, and sponsored by Guinness? …

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