Dubai, United Arab Emirates: There are some things that you rarely see in the desert.
Such as grown men dressed in banana costumes drinking Heineken. The Tour de France and Olympic cycling champion acting as a rugby team’s waterboy. A sushi buffet. And rain. Hard-falling, ankle-deep rain.
That’s what attendees of the Emirates Dubai Rugby Sevens experienced on the last Friday of November, on the outskirts of the Arabian metropolis during the second of nine stops on the HSBC World Series.
Sixteen of the top men’s seven a side national teams faced off at the complex, known simply as 7he Sevens. Yes, there is a 7 where the T should be and that’s the way they do it here.
Forty kilometres away from the dramatic skyline punctuated by the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, is the 50,000-seat stadium beside Al Ain Road. All but 4,000 of the seats are temporary. There are five other fields busy with men’s and women’s amateur divisions. British cycling superstar Bradley Wiggins was spotted, assisting a team raising funds for the Joining Jack Foundation to battle Duchenne muscular dystrophy. His waterboy skills weren’t taxed on this day, however.
Emirates Airline is both the landlord and the title sponsor. Its glitzy, two-storey hospitality chalet includes a patio and indoor lounge with a direct walkway into the midfield seating. Sister company Dnata was across the way in the sponsor village where Heineken, Airbus, BP, HSBC and MMI tried to outdo each other with their setups. Guests were outfitted in sponsors’ rugby jerseys. On cue, after lunch, the skies opened up and let loose a deluge of rain from afternoon to late evening that locals told me was something they see only once every five years.
The best-drained place might have been the field itself. Elsewhere, it was ankle- deep on the concourse.
The downpour frustrated the fire jugglers on the pitch, but it didn’t stop the merry parade of fans or the authentic camel herder and a pair of his dromedaries or even the man who used a jet pack to fly around the stadium. Another loop of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” blasted through the loudspeakers.
And Hong Kongers think their sevens have a monopoly on fun?
Boutros Boutros, Emirates’ senior vice-president of corporate communications, said the airline pounced on the opportunity in the late 1980s to cater to the expat community and the two expanded exponentially. 7he Sevens stadium complex opened in 2008, a year before Dubai hosted the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) world cup sevens.
“It was supposed to be building it for the community; a non-profit complex. This is part of our contribution to the society,” Boutros said. “Our involvement has encouraged a lot of rugby clubs to grow and develop in the country. That’s what we do as an airline. We push traffic to these countries, we promote them socially, we promote tourism, we like to support local communities because we strongly believe loyalty is something important for our business.”
Just before this year’s tournament, new IRB CEO Brett Gosper made U.A.E. the 100th member of the world rugby governing body. Dubai was also the launching pad for the four-stop Women’s World Series, a key step on the road to Rio 2016, where rugby sevens will debut as an Olympic sport.
Gosper, a former Australian international rugby player and advertising executive, is ready for rugby’s popularity to explode.
The Olympic year is also when IRB may be looking to fill some spots on the sevens world series. Could Vancouver have a chance?
“From that time onwards, or leading up to that, we’ll get into an examination, a little bit like a tendering process, but not quite as strict as that,” Gosper said. “In the next cycle there’s no reason why Vancouver or Toronto or anyone in Canada cannot put a good case forward to why it would be good for the game to have a destination in Canada.”
IRB touted Dubai 2012 as the most widely broadcast sevens tournament ever, with 22 broadcasters carrying the Samoa over New Zealand final to a potential 230 million homes in 140 countries, including NBC Sports in the U.S., Rogers Sportsnet in Canada, Sky Sports in the United Kingdom, ESPN Star Asia and host OSN. •