Which national team has been the most successful in Olympic rugby history?
The United States.
Not known for its rugby prowess today, a team from America has taken gold twice in the Olympics. Of course, rugby union was an Olympic event only four times – 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924. After that, rugby did not make an Olympic appearance until the 2016 Rio Olympics. America took gold at rugby’s last Olympic appearance in the 20th century – the 1924 Paris Olympics.
Why rugby no longer made the Olympic list of eligible sports after 1924 is unclear to me. Maybe it was a challenge to amass large teams for overseas competition at the time, as only three teams participated in the Paris Games: host France, Romania, and the United States. The American team was, I believe, primarily a squad of 22 from Stanford University, which had to raise $20,000 to pay for their travel to Europe, their training in England and their time in France.
Another reason may have been that unseemly gamesmanship left a sour taste in the mouths of the IOC.
According to Wikipedia, the Americans apparently were initially refused entry into the country, but still forced their way off their ship. The Americans claim that seasickness and the long trip made them very eager to disembark, while the French immigration officials viewed the Americans as “streetfighers and saloon brawlers.” Indeed there was apparently a fight at the docks between Americans and Frenchmen, getting the rugby rivalry off to a roaring start.
What followed, according to reports, was the following:
- Games between local French clubs and the visiting American squad were suddenly cancelled.
- The American team was told to hold their workouts on open lots near their hotel instead of proper fields of play.
- The Americans were denied permissions to film their first match against Romania under the pretext that a French company had sole rights to film all rugby matches (although they were eventually given permission to do so)
- And just to sprinkle salt on the wounds, the Americans returned to their rooms to find about $4000 worth of cash and possessions stolen despite a guard being on duty, according to this site.
Apparently, captain Norman “Cleaveland and his teammates were not very happy, and because of their treatment in the press, the American side was now being cursed and spat upon on in the streets of Paris. The American expatriate community in Paris was even staying well clear of them.”
Since there were only three teams, there were only three rugby matches actually played at the 1924 Olympics: France vs Romania, US vs Romania, and France vs the US. Both France and American handled Romania handily. So the press quite happily had their dream grudge match, a finals between the US and France. Here’s how this article describes the setting:
May 18th started as another hot day in an unseasonably warm string of spring days in Paris. A crowd of between 35,000 and 40,000 people gathered for the rugby final and the awarding of the first medal of the 1924 Olympic Games. As the team entered the stadium from a tunnel, they noted that the Olympic officials had elected to install a tall wire fence around the stadium to restrain the crowd. The American side wore white uniforms, blue belts, and white stockings hooped with red and blue. An American shield was sewed to the front of their jumpers. Wearing white shorts and blue stockings, the French took the field in their famous blue jumper badged with a cock.
All in all, a fairly normal start….except perhaps for the tall wire fence. Very quickly in the match, one of the speedy French players, Adolphe Jauguery, was flattened by an American winger named “Left” Rogers. Jauguery was taken off the field, unconscious and bleeding, and the crowd quickly turned on the Americans.
In the end, Team USA won the gold medal in a hard-fought match 17-3. The American press in Paris, were of course sympathetic and supportive of their American boys.
The headline for this Associated Press report from May 18, 1924, was “Americans Win Double Victory.”
The American Olympic Rugby football team won two great victories today at the Colombes stadium. The first was their defeat of France in the Olympic Rugby match, 17 to 3. The second was a victory over themselves in not losing their tempers under great provocation from what was termed by spectators as unfair and unjust a crowd as ever attended a sporting event. The American players were booed and hissed throughout the game, at the raising of the American flag on the Olympic flagpole was the occasion for a demonstration of booing and catcalling and the strains of the American national anthem were almost drowned out by the din raised by the seemingly infuriated spectators.
And just in case Americans weren’t outraged enough, here is the kicker. Not only was the unsportsmanlike conduct by the French in the battle on the pitch, the American claimed the same was true in the stands.
A fist fight then broke out in the stands and degenerated into a battle royal in which gold headed canes were freely used. The Americans were outnumbered and furthermore, they carried no canes with which to retaliate. When the police managed to disentangle the combatants, B. F. Larse of Provo, Utah and Gideon William Nelson of DeKalb Ill, two American students in Paris, were found to have been knocked out. Both men had to be carried out of the stand. Nelson was unconscious for an hour. When he recovered, it is said, he began looking for a bewhiskered man who carried a heavy cane.
Fake news, perhaps, but kinda fun.