It is 6pm in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Delegates to SportAccord Convention are reaching for their black ties and frocks in preparation for that night’s gala awards ceremony. The local frogs are cranking up for their evening chorus.
Bernard Lapasset, President of World Rugby, is just back from a visit to a nearby national sports coaching and training centre. The calibre of the medical facilities has particularly impressed him.
The approachable 67-year-old Frenchman, from the Pyrenean army town of Tarbes in the deep south, has been an increasingly influential figure in international sports for some time now, helping to secure the right to host the 2007 Rugby World Cup for France and overseeing the sport’s return to the Olympic programme.
If things had worked out differently, he might even have been presiding over this convention. Two years ago, he lost 52-37 to Marius Vizer in St Petersburg in the race to replace Hein Verbruggen as SportAccord President. A contemporary report by insidethegames editor Duncan Mackay, who was there in the city on the Neva in May 2013, suggested that the Frenchman tried to imply that his rival’s flagship proposal for a united World Championships would “jeopardise SportAccord’s close relationship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC)”.
It seems appropriate, then, to start, after we have settled in a quietish hotel bar, by asking Lapasset for his reaction to the explosive Vizer speech which opened the 2015 convention and which has, er, jeopardised SportAccord’s close relationship with the IOC.
“I admit I was surprised by what happened,” he tells me, speaking in French. “I saw Marius and spoke to him. I asked him why he took that attitude. He explained it was rather his temperament that spoke, his character, his desire for change, to make things move a bit.
“But I don’t know if it has really sunk in that he personally attacked Thomas Bach. And that in my opinion is a pity because that will certainly create discord in relations between the federations, independently of relations between SportAccord and the IOC.”
Lapasset was among the 27 Summer Olympic sport heads who quickly signed a letter expressing their disagreement with Vizer’s opinions and support for Bach.
“I signed because I think we shouldn’t be mistaken in how we see things,” he told me. “The IOC is a reference in the world: it creates the history of international sport; it gives value to great sports events; it gives financial strength to all the federations. That’s what the IOC is first and foremost. I think in that way, it is something important.
“Certainly we need to evolve. Thomas Bach with Agenda 2020 did a really great piece of work. He consulted very widely. A lot of people participated; there was a wide debate. So things are in the process of evolving - and I think in the right direction. Voilà.
“I think we must start from that reference-point, then eventually add complementary changes if necessary. It is no bad thing for people to express themselves, but…I think the error is in wanting to divide, to separate the federations.”
He concludes: “Today, in my opinion we must above all consolidate the role of the IOC. That is the real message: if a SportAccord must exist, it is in order to establish a link with the reinforcement of the IOC’s role.
“Let it make proposals - but proposals infused by a team spirit accepted by all. Not just a personal reaction.”
If Lapasset’s name has been gradually gaining in prominence for the best part of a decade, it may well be the next two years that define how his career in sports administration is ultimately judged.
Next year brings Rio 2016 and rugby’s return to the Olympic spotlight for the first time in 92 years, this time with the quickfire, high-adrenalin, crowd-friendly sevens version of the game. Before that, the Frenchman must decide whether to run for a further term as World Rugby President.
This year’s Rugby World Cup in England and Wales looks on course to break most, if not all, commercial records - a key consideration as the tournament has become the sport’s developmental cash cow since it was first staged in 1987. Now attention is starting to focus as well on the next Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019, which represents a key opportunity to embed the sport in a vast, dynamic continent.
And then there is the small matter of what role Lapasset will play in the impending Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic bid, which has somehow managed to achieve favourites, or joint favourites, status before even entering the race.
The rugbyman has certainly been prominent in the extended “pre-campaign” which seems to have been successful in winning support from the French political classes, many of whom, bruised by past defeats, were initially sceptical. His public declarations as this process has unwound have been refreshingly breezy, candid and devoid of French hauteur. As I have written before, I have never heard London praised so extravagantly on French soil as during one public meeting in support of the bid that I attended.
There is, in short, plenty for us to get our teeth into. We start with Rio.
With the debut of rugby sevens set to be one of the stories of the Games, just as women’s boxing was in London, Lapasset is clearly conscious of the importance of putting the sport’s best foot forward while the eyes of the world are upon it.
“It is up to us now to show at Rio that we are capable of putting on a very good show,” he says. “I think it’s important that we don’t just talk about sport, but that we speak in terms of the quality of the event. That we now show the IOC what we can bring them with rugby sevens…
“We will be there for six days - three for the men, three for the women - so it’s a good showcase for what we are going to present.”
The atmosphere created by colourful, multinational crowds is a key part of sevens’ appeal around the world, and Lapasset is plainly determined that Rio will be no different.
He alludes to Fijian guitarists who will come, hoping to witness their Pacific nation’s first-ever Olympic medal, and France-supporting Basque singers. “In rugby sevens, off the field is more important than on the field,” he says, adding: “It’s a really important point that.
“The celebrations in rugby sevens will be fantastic.”
The sport is one of those based in the Deodoro cluster, and Lapasset reveals that organisers recently suggested a meeting involving all Deodoro-based sports federations to discuss how they could contribute to creating a special atmosphere in the zone.
“So we will have a meeting between federations to define how to do the fan-zones and arrival areas for spectators,” he says. “That’s important: to create a special atmosphere so people come to Deodoro because it is a good place; because there is an ambiance and you have fun. You’ll see a good sporting spectacle, but you’ll also have a good time.”
The temporary stadium that will host sevens has yet to be built and there are still a few questions to be answered, notably on transport, but Lapasset seems relaxed about the situation and says works will have started by the time of World Rugby’s next visit on June 24.
“We really know the configuration of the stadium extremely precisely on the architectural plans,” he says, explaining that the sport opted for a capacity of 15,000 rather than the 25,000 offered. “It’s important to have a full stadium, so we cut this back. It’s better to have a smaller capacity and to be sure of having a full venue for every session, for any match.” The test event, he says, is next March.
Turning to the 15-a-side game, he says that arrangements for this year’s World Cup in September and October are “on the final straight”, with tickets sold now exceeding two million of the 2.3 million on offer.
Hospitality will be a record, so will proceeds from the official partner programme. So can we already say that 2015 will produce the biggest-ever Rugby World Cup surplus?
“Yes, I think so,” he replies, a touch more hesitantly than I had expected. “There is no reason that [the current record from France 2007] won’t be beaten in my opinion.”
I note, however, that World Rugby’s 2014 financial report has pencilled in an estimated surplus of £140 million ($212 million/€189 million), comfortably in excess of the £122.4 million ($185 million/€165 million) generated by France 2007. I conclude that he was just being ultra-cautious and seeking to avoid leaving hostages to fortune.
Japan 2019 promises to be a rather different kettle of fish, with one of the prime objectives being to secure the sport a better foothold in the vast and fast-growing Asian market.
“We have to make rugby better-known in Asia,” Lapasset says, explaining that sevens has facilitated the emergence of relatively new Asian rugby countries such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka. “The World Cup presents an opportunity to associate these countries with the culture of 15-a-side rugby. Because they chiefly came to rugby via sevens.”
To help sow the seed, World Rugby is also working with regional broadcasters to try to get more rugby screened in the years leading up to the tournament.
I comment on how well the Tokyo 2020 Olympic marketing programme appears to be going and Lapasset discloses that World Rugby too is “beginning to have the first contracts”. The federation is working with Dentsu, Japan’s top advertising company, as well as IMG. Says Lapasset: “We have a number of contracts that are already in the process of being signed.”
And have they finally started to demolish the old stadium, which will make way for the Zaha Hadid-designed replacement that will host both the 2020 Olympics and the 2019 Rugby World Cup?
“Not yet,” he replies. “They have closed it, but not demolished it.” As with Rio, however, the Frenchman appears relaxed about the state of affairs.
“We are sure to have the stadium,” he says. “They have an obligation under the Olympic Charter to do a test event, and they have taken the Rugby World Cup to be the test event. So we are not worried.”
There are two points in the interview when my tension monitor does flicker fleetingly into life. The first is when I begin by referring to World Rugby as “the IRB”, ie its old name, the prissy-sounding International Rugby Board. The second is when I try to pin Lapasset down on his eventual role on the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic bid, and whether he will run next year for another term as World Rugby President.
He sidesteps this attempted tackle with the aplomb of a Mike Gibson, or I suppose I should say a Serge Blanco, (“I don’t know yet”; “We will see”), before returning to the subject to challenge my inference that one post might preclude the other.
“Above all, you must not oppose the two roles,” he asserts. “There is no opposition between the fact of being leader of a campaign and leader of World Rugby.
“World Rugby is my obligation as an elected official. I am elected…
“With the bid, I am not elected…It is a load and a responsibility. That is not the same thing…
“I have a responsibility at World Rugby towards those who elected me. My objective is to be effective both regarding rugby sevens and the Olympic Games, and preparing for the World Cup and assuring rugby’s development all over the world.
“That is my responsibility; that is what I owe those who elected me.
“So there I have some thinking to do at the end of my term, to decide what I will do. But….if I have a job to do for the bid, I can do it.”
My gut feeling? That he will run again if he feels he can win, so as to remain in situ for rugby’s historic return to the Olympic programme.
And while he is the obvious choice to act as President of a Paris 2024 bid that surely now will come, I think he will adopt a fairly hands-off approach, leaving the likes of chief executive-in-waiting Etienne Thobois and recently-retired canoe champion and IOC member Tony Estanguet to do the heavy lifting.
We will know soon enough, on both counts.