Rugby

Funding needed: Team GB Olympic rugby dreams on the line

British sevens stars Tom Mitchell, Abbie Brown, and Dan Norton tell Olympic Channel how they plan to self-fund Olympic campaign in wake of COVID-related cuts.

By Andrew Binner ·

Great Britain's men's rugby sevens team may have made the Olympic final at Rio 2016, but several of their top players are now facing an uphill struggle to even compete at the Tokyo Olympic Games due to a loss of funding.

Last month the Rugby Football Union, who run the sport in England, scrapped all of its professional men's and women's sevens contracts (including backroom staff) in order to save costs as part of a COVID-enforced restructuring.

England, who combine with Scotland and Wales to form Team GB rugby at the Olympics, had already qualified both the British men’s and women’s teams places at Tokyo.

Olympic Channel caught up with three members of the British team at Rio 2016 including Tom Mitchell and Dan Norton from the men's team and Abbie Brown from the women's team, to find out what has happened to the players, and how they plan to compete at Tokyo.

"The Olympics seem a long way off for us right now," Mitchell said.

"With only one year to go until Tokyo, to have invested so much time and effort to get there... Everyone is pretty down."

Tom Mitchell (bottom row, third right) and Dan Norton (top row, far left) were part of the men's Great Britain team that won silver at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

“A lot of us had been there for the last four to six years, giving so much to the RFU and the game of sevens,” Norton, the world series all-time top try scorer, continued.

“To be in that position where we were so close to the Olympics this August, to have it postponed due to COVID, having another potential crack at it in 2021, and now lose that too is pretty gutting.”

Sourcing private investment

The players unanimously decided to try and fulfill their Olympic dreams through private investment and a crowdfunding campaign.

They will need to raise approximately $2.6m (£2m / €2.2m) in order to achieve their goal of getting both teams and basic support staff to the Games in Japan.

“The news was broken to us over a Zoom call due to COVID and it was heartbreaking,” Great Britain’s women’s captain Brown told Olympic Channel.

“The RFU told us that they want to support our teams at some stage, but what that looks like is still very unknown. So we are looking for funding in order to decide our own fate, and know that we have the support we need and not live in uncertainty.

“That’s why we’ve set up a new Twitter and Instagram for the team, to get ourselves out there, tell our story and see if anyone wants to support us or follow our journey to the Olympics next year."

Finding new employment

Staring down the barrel of approximately £100m in losses due to coronavirus, it is understandable that purse strings had to be tightened in order to secure the RFU’s future. But their decision to cut sevens was crushing on several levels.

Firstly for the players, after years of dedication towards realising their Olympic dream, it means potentially missing out on playing for Team GB in Tokyo.

Perhaps more pressingly it also means finding a new way to provide for themselves and their families.

But rugby sevens is truly a global sport, reaching audiences and demographics that the 15-a-side format of the sport can’t.

This was one of the driving factors behind sevens’ inclusion on the Olympic programme for the first time at Rio 2016, where Team GB’s men won silver and the Fijian men’s team secured a fairy-tale first Olympic gold medal for the Pacific island nation.

As such, England’s decision to rescind the professional sevens contracts has left other international teams upset for their friends, and fearing for their own future should their governing bodies follow suit.

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“It was amazing that players from other teams were publicly showing support and sympathising with the situation,” Team GB's Rio 2016 captain Mitchell told Olympic Channel.

“These are people we see on the circuit all around the world. That was very touching, and it hits home how the sport is bigger than just what you see on the pitch. And that's what makes it so powerful." - Tom Mitchell to Olympic Channel

A loss of identity

Norton is one of the few men’s players that have managed to pick up a professional 15-a-side rugby contract, and his short-term contract with London Irish means he is able to maintain his fitness.

Most of the women’s players have also managed to find 15-a-side clubs to play for on a full-time basis, but it cannot be understated that the two variations of the sport have different requirements in terms of fitness, and playing 15s is far from ideal Olympic preparation for them.

The majority of the men’s players have been forced into finding other employment - like coaching, teaching, and even gardening - to make ends meet. On top of this, they still have to find the time to keep their bodies conditioned as best they can.

“Sevens is what we’ve devoted all of our time to and while some of us have been lucky enough to remain in the sport, it’s ultimately a huge shift for everyone involved,” Norton continued.

“But while we’ve temporarily had to move in slightly separate directions, all of the men’s and women’s sevens players are still bonded by the same goal of getting to the Olympics.” - Dan Norton to Olympic Channel.

Abbie Brown: Support 'overwhelming'

Since the news of the termination of England’s sevens teams broke, there has been a significant outpouring of support for the players from around the world.

Friendship is a key value at the heart of the Olympic Movement, and in a true display of solidarity with the players, outside individuals and companies have got in touch to offer their services for free.

“The amount of support for our dream of going to Tokyo next year has actually been overwhelming,” Brown continued.

“Whether it’s been the offer of a massage session, physio or money, it’s been heartwarming in a very difficult time for us. You realise you’re also fighting for other people who want to see you succeed."

Abbie Brown in action for Great Britain at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Excellence despite adversity

Another key Olympic value is excellence, meaning to give of your best in any given situation.

With the need to raise funds currently a higher priority than honing rugby skills, the teams’ determination to succeed in this less familiar field has been exemplary.

“We are really testing ourselves in a very different way to what we’re used to, hitting the phones and connecting with different people, but trying to apply the same mindset and commitment that we would apply to sevens,” Mitchell continued.

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“We sometimes feel a little bit defeated by it, but that's the game and that’s life. We have started building momentum and we have to keep our eye on that goal because it would be super sweet if we can taste that success of going to the Olympics, knowing the extra barriers that we've had to overcome together.

“It’s our job to inspire the next generation of rugby players, and also people who have never been in touch with the sport before, which is what is so valuable about competing on the Olympic stage."