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Rugby at the Olympics: Creating sevens history at Rio 2016
Patricia Garcia, Jade Ulutule and Pierre Gilles Lakafia talk to World Rugby about Rio 2016 and their roles in the first men’s and women’s sevens matches to be played at an Olympic Games.
It was not until Patricia Garcia received the stamp on her passport, complete with Rio 2016 logo, that she allowed herself to believe she was an Olympic athlete.
Garcia had long dreamed of competing at the Games, and once sevens’ inclusion was confirmed in 2009, she and her Spain team-mates dedicated themselves to the task of qualification.
However, the road to Rio proved to be a long, and not uncomplicated, one. The team’s participation had been confirmed less than six weeks previously, when Garcia scored 14 of Spain’s 19 points to defeat Russia in the final of the women’s Repechage in Dublin.
“The day of the Repechage that we beat Russia, it was euphoric and it was like, 'wow' we achieved it,” Garcia told World Rugby.
“But until the moment that you are walking with the team in the Olympic Village, or on the field at the Olympics at Rio, you didn't really believe that you were there.”
Garcia might not have had long to get used to the idea of being an Olympian, but she was soon to play a central and decisive role in the story of sevens at the Olympic Games.
At 11:00 (BRT) on 6 August, 2016, and with supporters still taking their seats at Deodoro Stadium, the diminutive playmaker dropped the ball onto her right foot to kick-off the first ever Olympic sevens match: France v Spain.
“We knew that we were the starting game of the whole Olympic Games for rugby sevens, men's and women's, and [it was] Spain-France, which is a nice derby,” Garcia added.
“It was a funny moment because it was historic. But then I have a little bit of pressure because can you imagine the first restart ever in Olympic rugby sevens and maybe we didn't achieve the 10 metres?
“So, I cannot miss this kick because everyone will be watching the moment that rugby sevens became an Olympic sport.”
Fortunately for Garcia, her kick sailed high into the sky and travelled the requisite 10 metres. However, within 14 seconds the ball had been returned with interest by France as Camille Grassineau scored the first try in Olympic Sevens.
Less than a minute later Lina Guerin had notched a second to put France firmly in control.
“We knew Spain could be a very tough game and if we don’t play good in the first half, if we give them too much ball and don’t put enough intensity during the game, it can be a very hard game and probably we can lose it,” France’s Jade Ulutule (née Le Pesq), who was a replacement against Spain, told World Rugby.
“So, I think we were very focused and really wanted to do well on the field. So, I think the confidence just came at half-time and to the end of the game when we saw we were doing well on the field.”
A Caroline Ladagnous try helped to stretch the French lead to 19-0 at the start of the second-half, before Garcia brought her side back into the match by converting her own score.
“We scored and it was like, OK, at least we could score a try because the game was a little bit ugly for us,” Garcia said.
“After the game someone told me it was the first try converted by [the scorer] at the Olympics.”
Hopes of a potential Spain comeback were extinguished by France’s fourth try, scored by Elodie Guiglion, which gave them an unassailable 24-7 lead. Moments later, Ulutule was substituted on to make her Olympic debut.
“It was easier for me to go on because we were winning at that moment,” she said. “I was thinking, just do what you do every time, just get some power and some fresh legs to the team, and just give them some confidence.”
France and Ulutule were able to hold on to bag some local bragging rights and record the first sevens victory in Olympic Games history. The teams would meet again in the fifth-place semi-final, which France won, and would finish the tournament sixth and seventh respectively.
Following in father’s footsteps
On 9 August, again at 11:00 (BRT), the first men’s tournament at the Olympic Games got underway and the fixture schedule ensured that France were again involved.
For French back Pierre Gilles Lakafia, starting against Australia at Deodoro Stadium was the culmination of a lifetime ambition to emulate his father, Jean-Paul, who competed at the Los Angeles Games in 1984.
“I have always been really proud of my father because he was an Olympic javelin thrower for France and since I am a kid I was really proud to say, ‘hey, he did this in Los Angeles’,” Pierre told World Rugby.
“When this dream came true, the fact that I was about to make the Olympics also, it was really a dream. I could do the same thing as my dad for my kids.
“I was really super proud to be able to do the same thing as my father.”
Jean-Paul was in the crowd, alongside Pierre’s mother, as France began their Rio 2016 campaign with an impressive 31-14 defeat of Australia — who had finished seven places and 49 points above them in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2015/16 standings.
“It was a lot of pressure but we were as ready as we could [be],” Lakafia said. “On the global season we knew Australia were better than us, but in one game, with the pressure that the Olympics represents, we can do this.
“And I think it’s part of the French mentality. When everybody expects you to win, we can lose, and when everybody expects you to lose, we can win. And that’s what we were looking for.
“Nobody was expecting we’re gonna win that game and we really wanted to, and we did it.”
READ MORE: Constantin Henriquez: The story of the first black athlete to win Olympic gold