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Rugby Sevens: On Its Marks for Rio

11/12/2015 17:23 GMT | Updated 11/12/2016 10:12 GMT

I'd never been to a live rugby match before, but as a fan of all sports I was intrigued by an invitation to visit the opening leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Dubai last weekend.

With the sport counting down to its Olympic debut in Rio next August, my interest was piqued by the chance to see at first hand a group of athletes who'll be the first rugby sevens' players to take the stage at arguably the biggest show of all.

One of the first things I discovered was that my own country, the USA, are actually the current Olympic rugby champions, having won gold at the 15-a-side game in 1924, beating hosts France.

At the medal ceremony, The Star Spangled Banner was apparently drowned out by the booing and hissing of French fans, and the American team had to be escorted to their locker room under police protection.

I'm pleased to say that things have changed a bit since then and the atmosphere that greeted me at the Dubai tournament is one of the things I'll certainly take away with me.

It was a friendly, carnival vibe that other Olympic sports could certainly learn from, including my own sport of athletics. And allied to the sporting spectacle on the pitch, I can see it being a huge success at the Games in nine months' time.

More than 100,000 fans flocked to the 7evens Stadium outside of Dubai to enjoy the action and if that was representative of what Rio has got to look forward to next August, then we're in for a treat.

Rugby Sevens Olympic Journey...

The sevens format was voted into the Olympic movement in 2009 and international participation has apparently been soaring ever since. That's been seen in the US particularly, where 5million youngsters have been introduced to the game in the last 5 years, and where the development of the USA 7's team has been so marked that they won the final leg of the 2014/15 World Series in London last season. I myself have seen an increasing number of young kids playing rugby that come through my own performance training centre in Dallas - Michael Johnson Performance.

One of the US team's big successes has been an ability to recruit cross over athletes from other American sports like NFL or my own athletics.

Two players who are making a major impact on the HSBC WRSS at the moment are former sprinter Carlin Isles and American Football convert Perry Baker.

Billed as the fastest man on the sevens circuit, Carlin was a natural person for me to meet and I was honoured to present him, and the rest of the US team, with their shirts before the Dubai tournament started. I even found time to share a few sprinting tips with Carlin, who is still runs the 100m in sub 10.3 seconds.

michael johnson

But it wasn't just the speed that impressed me. These guys are incredible athletes.

I was asked a number of times during the weekend, whether I'd have fancied playing rugby and whether anyone could have caught me.

My answers were 'no' and 'no', but I guess I'd have found the second part harder to evidence without actually lacing up a pair of rugby boots. Something I won't be doing I can assure you. Give me the sanctity of having had my own lane in athletics every time!

I did get a few tips from rugby union stars Brian O'Driscoll and Jason Robinson, which I enjoyed, although no boots were required.

michael johnson

Olympic inclusion has been pivotal to the recent growth of rugby, with a significant increase in funding and participation levels. Globally the numbers playing rugby have doubled since inclusion in 2009, and women's participation grew from 200,000 to 1.7 million in just the last three years.

A new report to be published by long term rugby supporters HSBC, called Breaking New Ground, suggests its appearance in Rio 2016 has already been a game-changer for the development and growth of rugby as a global sport and will have greater long term impact than the recent Rugby World Cup.

The Olympics has an incredible ability to create global icons, but I was keen for the US players to grasp the difference between the Olympics and a normal sevens competition. It is often a once in a lifetime opportunity so preparation is everything. Mentally, knowing there is no next year, creates a different type of pressure on the athletes and they need to maintain upmost focus despite all the distractions that they'll experience.

While it was great to see the US team beat perennial winners New Zealand for the first time in Dubai, it was last season's HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions, Fiji, who eventually beat England in the final.

It seems that Fiji are stretching ahead of the other teams at the moment, so there is a distinct possibility that a team from outside of the traditional rugby powerhouses will walk away with gold in nine months' time.

When you think that a country like Fiji has never won an Olympic medal of any colour - that could be game-changing. But don't discount the US team just yet. I'll be there in Rio cheering them on, rugby sevens newest fan, and I can't wait.