The United States took the field in Brazil on Tuesday as the reigning Olympic champion in rugby. However, none of the current U.S. players could recall that previous moment of glory — because rugby was last played at the Olympics was 1924.
The U.S. wasn’t known a world power in rugby back then, and the victory in Paris, 92 years ago, stunned both the French – and the Americans themselves.
Here’s how it happened.
In the early part of the 20th century, rugby was in some places more popular than the new sport of American football, including California. The U.S. team won Olympic gold at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium. But after World War I, American college athletes were gravitating to American football, and rugby was fading out. By 1924, it was difficult to find enough good American rugby players to field a competitive team.
“France, whom the United States defeated for the title in 1920, was very insistent that the titleholder enter a team so that she might be given the opportunity to remove the laurel wreath from the crown of her dear brothers from the U.S.A,” wrote Dudley DeGroot, a player on the 1924 team whose account of the Olympic journey was printed in San Francisco’s The Call newspaper over 23 days that year.
“They were looking for a punching bag,” Norman Cleaveland, a Stanford graduate who played on that 1924 team. He provided an oral history that’s at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, Calif. “We were told to go to Paris and take our beatings like gentlemen.”
Scheduling The Matches To Favor The French
If France had one gold that seemed certain in the 1924 Olympics, it was in rugby. But, just to make sure, Olympic organizers scheduled the rugby competition in May, two months before the rest of the Olympics, at a time when French rugby players would be in top form. That put the Americans on a tight schedule.
A few of the players from 1920 decided to return to the team, and open tryouts filled out the roster. All the players were from California, and they had all played more American football than rugby.
In early April, the team made their way to New York and set sail on the S.S. America, bound not for Paris, but for England, where they would play practice matches against English teams, considered by many to be the best in the world.
“Certainly any group of Americans had a great deal of nerve to travel some 6,000 miles to play the greatest English teams at a game which in every sense of the word is English,” DeGroot wrote.
“But how much greater (or foolish) that nerve when it is considered that American team had never played a game, as a unit. Nor had any of the members of the team played rugby for four years, while eight of them had never played a game in their lives. And in spite of our confidence in ourselves we often wondered whether we had not undertaken something a little bit bigger than we could handle,” he added.
A Tournament Of Three
So you might be wondering, if Great Britain was the best in the world at rugby, why wasn’t it sending a team on a short trip across the Channel to France for the Olympics?
In DeGroot’s journal, he asks the same thing. And Great Britain wasn’t the only team that didn’t attend. The only two countries that agreed to face France in the Olympic rugby tournament were the United States and Romania.
Everyone else stayed home, it seemed, not because they were afraid of the French team.
They were afraid of the French fans.
When the Americans reached England, they got a drubbing from two English squads. Then they boarded a boat to France.
“Rough, oh, I’ve never been on such a rough ride,” Cleaveland said in his oral history. “We were seasick and we felt battered around. Well, the French had goofed off, and they hadn’t told the officials in Boulogne that we were coming. So they said we couldn’t get off the boat, we didn’t have any visas. So we said, ‘That’s what you think. You watch us, see if we get off this boat.’ We charged through the gendarmes and through the barriers. The next morning, the Paris papers featured the ‘Big Riot in Boulogne.’ Oh, we were really taken apart in the press.”
The rugby players settled into their hotel in Paris — the athlete’s village wasn’t yet finished — and started preparing for the tournament. First up was France vs. Romania. The American team watched from the stands.
“The final score of that game, if game it could be called, was 61 to 8 in favor of France,” DeGroot wrote. “We left the field fully realizing just what we were up against. A decidedly sober bunch of Americans, trying to figure out just how were going to stop that French backfield.”
The next game was the U.S. vs. Romania. The Americans won easily, 37-0, but the French fans booed and hissed at the winning team throughout the game.
“To say that the French spectators were unsportsmanlike at that game would be putting it far too mildly,” DeGroot wrote.
The French Olympic Committee agreed. In the days before the final between the U.S. and France, they published an appeal in a local newspaper for civility in the wake of the “violent sentiments” shown by French fans.
“The Americans play hard,” the committee said, “but never brutally or with bad intent. The Californians who have come over 12,000 (kilometers) to play a sport which is not theirs should have the applauds and the feeling of the French sporting public.”
“It is hard to conceive of a nation so unsportsmanlike that such an appeal is necessary,” DeGroot wrote. And then, in reference to World War I, he added, “But it is harder still to try to understand how the people of the French nation could be so hostile to representatives of a country which had so recently saved them from almost certain destruction.”
A Rowdy Final
In the gold medal game, played on a blisteringly hot and humid Sunday in May, 40,000 fans packed Colombes Stadium in Paris.
“As we were standing at attention during the playing of our anthem, the storm which had been threatening all day broke loose with a tremendous clap of thunder and burst of lightening, which enhanced the majesty of the scene many times,” DeGroot wrote.
“The odds were five to one against us,” recalled Cleaveland. He added:
“We really had our dander up. A lot of things we knew about by playing American football the French were yet to learn. They started beating up Americans in the stands. This was during the game. The only way they could get the injured Americans into an ambulance was to bring them onto the field. We thought that some were dead, and we thought that it was only a matter of time before we would be dead, also.”
The play was equally nasty on the field.
The French “did most of their tackling around the neck and shoulders. Consequently when we left our feet and hit them low, it simply laid them out,” DeGroot explained. “The French fullback was a particularly dirty player, persisting in putting his cleated foot in your face. We soon found by tackling him hard and low on the one leg he kept on the ground, he soon got over this. From that time on that fullback couldn’t kick the ball when he got it to save his life.”
And the outcome surprised everyone, even the Americans.
“Oh, we gave them a waxing,” Cleaveland said. “We won, 17-3.”
Something strange also happened after the big upset.
“The French newspapers switched sides, changed their role 180 degrees, and we became great heroes,” Cleaveland said. “And Paris, I can assure you, is one of the best places in the world to be a hero.”
Norman Cleaveland went on a tour of Europe, and worked his way back to Paris to watch the rest of the Olmpics – and to enjoy being a hero.
Dudley DeGroot got to work on his extended journal for The Call. He ended by questioning whether the Olympics should be held at all:
“Where will it end? Certainly the French need to be taught true sportsmanship, which is one of the objects of the Olympic games, but such a thing seems to be an impossibility,” he wrote.
The New Rugby
The rugby being played in Rio features just seven players per side, making it faster-paced and higher-scoring than the game of 15 per side that was played in 1924. And rugby is played far more widely today, with 12 teams in the tournament. Neither France nor the U.S. is expected to medal at these games.
So how did the U.S. team do on Tuesday in its first Olympic rugby match in 92 years?
The Americans lost a close one to Argentina, 17-14.
Mark Jenkins and Dave Scholz contributed to this article.