Exclusive Q&A: USA Rugby chairman says Rio Olympics will change perception of the sport
Bob Latham, the Chairman of USA Rugby who was formerly on the board of the US Olympics Committee, is a former rugby player who played on the Dallas Harlequins for 13 years.
An extremely dedicated sports and Olympics fan who will be in Brazil for the games, Bob took some time to speak about the USA rugby team's chances and how the club has become a recent powerhouse in the sport. He also chatted about the impact of rugby being back in the Olympic games after nearly a hundred years and the intense process it took to get the sport to Rio.
Check out the full exclusive Q&A here:
Q: Your excitement must be off the charts, right?
A: It is (laughs). And it grows by the day.
Q: So, U.S. rugby will be competing in the games for the first time in over 90 years. From the start of helping make this happen, what are some things that went into it and what were some of the difficulties you faced along the way?
A: Well, with my involvement, it started in 1996. Up until 1995, the international governing structure of world rugby was not conducive to joining the Olympics, so we needed to shore that up. We needed to get it recognized by the U.S. Rugby committee. The effort to get into the Olympics really started later, about 1999 or 2000. I was part of it and it was exciting. We tried to get into the Beijing games in 2008. One of the frustrating things, and this isn't a criticism of the IOC, but they got more scientific of who gets into the Olympics. They refined that over the course of several years and the process was underway. The most gratifying part, to me, was that we knew the sport sells itself. We tried to highlight what we were doing in the sport, but when u have a sport as exiting as this -- it could be played in existing stadiums, is played across the world, Olympic medalists can come from any continent, we have world-class athletes, it sells itself. The IOC voted overwhelmingly in 2009 for it to be allowed into the games.
Q: From your post now, take me back to earlier in your career, how did you go from being an attorney to where you are now? Did you always have a passion for rugby?
A: I played until I was about 36 – longer than anyone should, especially while engaging with a legal career (laughs). But I was very lucky to do both and when I stopped played rugby, USA Rugby was looking for somebody to navigate the process to be recognized by the Olympics committee. As a lawyer, and knowing quite a few people in the national rugby scene, I had personal relationships with a lot of people across the country who were involved. They pegged me to lead the process and it led to me being as involved as I am.
Q: Looking ahead to the Rio Games, what are some things you're expecting? Do you truly have high hopes for the US team, and who are some players we should look out for?
A: Hopes are high. I was thinking about it, 'wouldn't it be great if were in the Olympics and Americans can see this great sport?' I think I've now gotten greedy, where I'm saying, 'wouldn't it be great if we got a medal or a gold medal?' It's a wide open competition. Obviously, teams are ranked highly, such as Fiji being No. 1 in the world. New Zealand is right there, South Africa is there, as well as England and Canada. But you're going to see a wide open competition. From the men's side, you gave the fastest player in the world in Carlin Isles. Perry Baker is a tremendous talent. Our captain, Madison Hughes, is a Dartmouth grad and a great on-field leader. We also have a guy trying out for the team, Nate Ebner who is on the New England Patriots. The men's team has beaten both New Zealand and Fiji, so we can play with anybody. On any given day, we can beat anybody.
On the women's side, you have the most inspirational player in Rio. Jillion Potter was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer two years ago, but she still played in the World Cup. She went through chemotherapy and is now the captain for our team in Rio. It's a remarkable story.
Q: When it comes to the sport's long process of going from niche to mainstream, do you think this is the big opportunity for rugby to be more popular in the United States?
A: It is an opportunity. Rugby is mainstream in many parts of the country and in other countries as a whole, so you're not talking about a niche sport worldwide. It just hasn't risen on the radar here as much as other places. The patriotism of it, when there's success, fans follow the story and the people. When the public sees what extraordinary athletes we have, these young men and women, it'll change the perception. And it'll influence the youth level too. Young kids will watch this and say, 'I want to be playing that.'
Q: When it comes to the concerns with Rio, do those issues concern you? Or do you think it's just like past Olympics, where issues have come up and they're blown out of proportion a bit?
A: I'll answer this couple different ways. You take medical and health advice and you take it seriously. We communicate the information to everybody, including on the Zika virus. Then you hear about the state of facilities, the transportation, the water, but luckily we don't play our sport in water (laughs).
They're all taken seriously. You do have to put in perspective, though. I'm guided by the way our athletes think – they are athletes who have played everywhere in the world. They've been to spots with war and famine and disease and all kinds of things and all the athletes just kind of get on it with it.
Well take all the proper precautions, but its not something where we're overly concerned about things. They're concerned about the games. But to your point, you do hear it every Olympics. You hear a lot. There's always issues. Every Olympics, though, the storylines before are, 'oh it's trouble.' But the competition starts and everybody gets caught up in it –- and it's compelling and great. The naysayers retreat to their corners. Hopefully that'll happen in this instance.
Q: When all is said and done, is this situation a win-win for you guys, where you could place but also not place, while growing engagement with the sport? Or, do you guys have the attitude where you desperately want to win?
A: I think the latter. We've worked so hard to build these programs. We've shown we can play well against the best in the world. We're not there to just show up and participate. We do want to win. When I first started on this odyssey, it was about just being in the Olympics. But I'd like to think we will have success and it'll inspire people even more. You compete to win and I think we can.