Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Dana Johannsen: Seven deadly sins ugly advert for new Olympic sport

Fans enjoying the Sevens tournament. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Fans enjoying the Sevens tournament. File photo / Mark Mitchell

It's coming up sevens weekend in Wellington, which can mean only one thing: time to get inebriated and enjoy the abbreviated form of the national game.

The giant alcohol-fuelled costume party that is the Wellington sevens seems to be a rite of passage for every young New Zealander.

But there is the sense over the past couple of years that it has moved beyond the point of people just having a good time. The tournament has become an ugly advertisement for everything that is wrong with New Zealand's drinking culture.

Anyone who has been to the Wellington tournament will have stories of highly intoxicated men and women passed out in and around the stadium, the concourse awash with vomit, the drunken louts who attempt to demonstrate that they can tackle harder than the players on the field. I have a friend who tells a story of going to the toilet only to find Donald Duck getting amorous with Daisy Duck. It's certainly not an atmosphere you'd want to bring young Huey, Dewey and Louie into.

The IRB is said to have been highly unimpressed with the behaviour of the crowd last year, with media stories of arrests, alcohol-related injuries, and upset patrons overshadowing action on the field.

Given the tournament, with sell-out crowds every year, does a good job of lining the IRB's coffers, there's no danger of Wellington losing it at this point, but organisers are under pressure to shift the emphasis from the party in the stands back to the rugby.

It comes at a time when there is a big push within rugby for sevens to be viewed as a serious sport in itself, and not just an exhibition game.

Its inclusion in the Olympic programme for Rio de Janeiro has elevated the sport to one of premier standing. Suddenly countries are piling big money into their sevens programmes - for both men and women - and many of the teams taking the field in Wellington will be made up of fulltime professional athletes, training in specialised Olympic facilities.

Sevens rugby has become a career path in itself, not just a stepping stone to a professional contract, or a consolation prize if you miss out on one.

The problem is the sevens tournament has long been marketed as a weekend-long party, rather than a highly competitive sporting event. While the players have been quick to adjust to the new environment as they begin their campaign for gold in 2016, it will take longer for the fans to catch on.

The sevens should be a fun and festive occasion - indeed that was part of the appeal when the IOC included it in the Games - and there is nothing wrong with having a few (note few) drinks to add to the party atmosphere. But the time has come to turn the focus back on the athletes on the field rather than the sideshow in the stands.

No one is trying to play the fun police here - come to think of it, that would be a cracker idea for a costume though.

- NZ Herald

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Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Dana has more than a decade's experience in sports journalism, joining the Herald in 2007 following stints with TVNZ and RadioSport. Over that time Dana has covered several major events including the 2011 Netball World Cup in Singapore, 2011 Rugby World Cup, 2012-13 Volvo Ocean Race, and the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco. A multi-award winning journalist, Dana was named New Zealand Sports Journalist of the Year in 2012 after scooping both the news and feature categories at the TP McLean Awards. The previous year she picked up the prize for best news break. She was also an inaugural recipient of the Sir John Wells scholarship at the 2009 NZSJA awards. Dana also writes a weekly sports column for the NZ Herald.

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