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Saturday, November 08, 2008

No room for women in Commonwealth Games rugby

The expansion of sevens rugby in recent years, and women's sevens in particular, has been quite remarkable. A few days ago it was confirmed that the Pan American Games would include rugby sevens for the first time at the next games in 2011. The Asian Games also now includes sevens, and famously the IRB are pushing for sevens at the Olympic Games.

All of these competitions will include both men's and women's events, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the multi-sport games that really set this ball rolling - the Commonwealth Games - will continue to be male-only for the foreseeable future (ie. the Glasgow games in 2014 at least).

The Commonwealth Games are important to the sport as they include more rugby-playing members than any other "regional" games - only France, out of the eight IRB founder members, are wholly absent (though the Irish team will somewhat depleted), so the continued absence of women players is all the more is significant. As a policy it also means that when the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games take place in the Isle of Man there will also be no room for any girls in the (boys-only) rugby tournament.

I wrote to the Commonwealth Games Federation and asked why and - perhaps partly as a result of this blog's profile - I was delighted to have a couple of very full answers.

The lack of girls at the Isle of Man's Youth Games is being put down to a question of numbers.
The philosophy behind the Youth Games is quite different to the main games in that the Federation want to ensure that it remains small enough to ensure that small nations like the Isle of Man are able to host the Games in the future. When you consider that the Games will attract 250 officials/support staff and 1,000 spectators we could not accommodate any more people on our small Island for an event of this kind.

We were advised to host a maximum of one team game and warned that it would not be easy to host any team games so we have been ambitious in putting rugby sevens in the programme. With a maximum of 1,000 competitors and 71 Commonwealth nations it is probable that most teams will actually be allocated less numbers for the whole team than they would need for a rugby sevens squad. The Welsh Team Management said that they would love to send a rugby sevens team in 2011 but that would only happen if we increased the size of their total team beyond the number they had in Pune. We are under no illusions that deciding on the allocation of team sizes to each nation is going to be extremely difficult.

With all of the above issues to consider, although we would ideally prefer to make all of the sports male and female, I am afraid it will not be possible for 2011.
In short, if there had to be a girls event then there would be no rugby sevens at all.

I can't say I am entirely sympathetic about this as inevitably this means that there will be more opportunities for boys to take part in these games than girls - which seems to be blatantly discriminatory. My suspicion is that when the IoM organisers were looking at whether they would include sevens they did not even consider that there should be a girls event as well - and where could this lack of awareness come from? Perhaps the main Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF)? Why - even in 2014 - will their event still be male only, nearly 10 years after the Asian Games managed to include a women's event?

The answer to this was rather interesting. It seems that back in 2006/7 when the Glasgow games were being planned the CGF sought advice from all sport governing bodies about how events should be run:
The CGF and Host City take a recommendation from the International Federation for a programmed sport as to which format and which events are included in a specific edition of the Games and the IRB may indeed look to recommend the inclusion of women’s rugby 7s in the Commonwealth Games in the future, particularly as they look to further the sport’s Olympic ambitions. This would in due course be considered by the CGF Sports Committee and Host or Candidate Cities.


If you wish to voice your support for the inclusion of women in the 7s event it would be a good idea to write to the IRB.
In short, the CGF asked the IRB, and the IRB only advised them to have a men's tournament. I have no reason to doubt the CGF on this, not least because the official I have been in contact with - Sue Whitworth - actually plays rugby. 

This advice from the IRB would have been very recent - 2007 according to the CGF - which is a bit of a puzzle. Could this is the same IRB that is promoting itself as being all for equality when it comes to the Olympic bid? Further indication then when it comes to equality at the top levels of the game the words "skin deep" spring to mind.

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