Almost 2,500 days have passed since the International Olympic Committee voted almost unanimously to add rugby sevens to the Olympic programme for the 2016 and 2020 Games at their session in Copenhagen.
On Saturday, the waiting is finally over as 12 women’s teams take their place on sport’s greatest stage and join the ranks of Olympians, something they never imagined would be possible.
For many simply being in the Olympic village and surrounded by athletes from other sports is something they can’t get their head around just yet.
“It’s pretty surreal still to be here,” admitted Australia co-captain Sharni Williams.
“When we take the pitch it will hit home, but coming here and seeing all the other athletes is a little bit different to the world series so it’s really exciting to be here.
“We are so proud to be here too. It’s been a long time coming, but we want the sport to stay so as athletes for rugby we want to go out there and perform to our best and showcase what the sport is about to keep it in the Olympics.”
Australia arrived in Rio as favourites to claim that historic first gold medal, having won a first HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series title in May after winning three of the five rounds.
An injury scare over former World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year Emilee Cherry, who will undergo a late fitness test after suffering a hamstring strain earlier in the week, has been a setback.
But Williams insists Australia are not feeling the weight of expectation to win gold.
“People keep talking about pressure on us, but pressure is only what you put on yourself,” Williams said. “We have high expectations but the pressure isn’t there to an extent. We are going to go out there and play like we have been playing all season.
“To be able to stand on the podium would be amazing – we want to win gold. But as Australia say they are proud of us for just getting here where we are, as rugby athletes and women in sport.”
By winning the series, Australia ended New Zealand’s dominance of the women’s sevens game which had seen them win the first three series crowns and RWC Sevens in 2013.
New Zealand captain Sarah Goss admits they are “great rivals” with Australia, but is also only too aware that their trans-Tasman rivals are not the only team standing in their way as they seek that golden moment.
“They’re (Australia) a highly competitive side and we’re great rivals, but you can say that about a lot of teams,” insisted Goss, whose side will face France, Spain and Kenya in Pool B. “We’re in for some tough matches.
“We’re a great rugby nation. It’s in our blood and I’m sure we’ll do New Zealand proud.”
New Zealand failed to win a round in the 2015-16 series, but coach Sean Horan has always believed that 2016 will be remembered for the Olympic Games and has prepared his squad accordingly so they are “energised and ready for the Games to begin”.
Canada, winners of the final series round in Clermont-Ferrand in May, are third seeds in Rio and will face Great Britain, Brazil and Japan in Pool C with coach John Tait and captain Jen Kish eager to see the side fulfil their potential.
Living the Olympic dream
“People should have high expectations of us because we have high expectations of ourselves,” insisted Kish. “Over the years we have built a case behind us of being top three in the world. To finally be here and living the dream with my 11 other team-mates is a true blessing and it’s an honour to be leading this team in the first ever Olympic Games for rugby sevens.”
Tait added: “We’ve been concentrating on putting in a great team performance and I know that if that happens, for us to finish outside the podium would be a disappointment. The teams that would keep us from doing that would have to perform better than they ever have before.
“When this team is on form, which I expect it to be, we’re next to impossible to beat.”
Canada’s biggest test in the pool stages will undoubtedly come from a Great Britain side captained by Emily Scarratt, who on Friday was named one of World Rugby’s Keep Rugby Clean ambassadors alongside Australia men’s captain Ed Jenkins.
“We know what we can do when we perform at our level and we couldn’t be better prepared,” insisted Scarratt. “We are nervous and excited but that’s exactly how you want it. Until the last couple of years I never ever believed I could be part of the Games, let alone captain the Great Britain team, but now it’s happening.”
The lure of Olympic gold is also a huge motivator for the USA Women’s Sevens Eagles with captain Kelly Griffin eager to seize the opportunity to help the sport continue to grow across America.
“This is what we’ve been working for, for the last few years. To be here, in the Olympic village, and to experience all the athletes from different countries is pretty amazing,” insisted Griffin, the most experienced member of the USA squad with 18 series tournaments to her name.
“The goal is to be on the podium … you come to the Olympics to compete.
“The Olympics is definitely a great platform for rugby to grow the game, especially in the US, because everyone in the US loves the Olympics. Hopefully we’ll get lots of kids watching who will see rugby and say ‘that’s what I want to play’ and we can grow the game from there.”
While an Olympic medal is the target for many of the teams over the next three days, for some the fact they are part of rugby sevens history is a huge achievement in itself and one they intend to make the most of.
That is certainly the case for Colombia captain Alejandra Betancur, whose side will face Australia, USA and Fiji in Pool A at the Deodoro Stadium after qualifying through the South American regional competition last year.
“Rio is the biggest dream for us, just qualifying was already a huge success,” she explained. “Now being here, the dream is complete and it is great for South America rugby.
“Yes, it will be difficult because rugby is quite new in our country, but Colombian women are tenacious and [we] will head straight, commit 200 per cent and put all our energy into this project.”
Colombia, along with hosts Brazil, Japan and Kenya, will also be competing to claim a core team place on the 2016-17 HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series. The higher ranked of this quartet will join the other eight teams from Rio 2016 as well as Russia and Ireland at every round.