The History of Rugby in the
Olympic Games

1920 US Olympic Team: (BACK, L-R) Wallace, Patrick, O’Neil, Fish, J Muldoon, Fitzpatrick, Slater, Righter.
(MIDDLE): Meehan, Hazeltine, Maloney (trainer), Tilden (c), Carroll (pl/coach), W Muldoon, von Schmidt, Scholz.
(FRONT): Wrenn, Doe, Hunter, Davis, Winston. Missing: Templeton, Kirksey.

By Richard Coppo

The US rugby community moves into 2004 in eager anticipation of spring competitions at the local and territorial union levels. It will culminate in a festival of national championship runs for both men and women, for high school, college and club teams and from the Super League to Division III.

We do so having just emerged from the thrilling quadrennial spectacle of the Rugby World Cup in Sydney. The RWC, which is the third largest athletic competition in the world after the Olympic Games and the Soccer World Cup, was won by England, the first time ever by a northern hemisphere team. And in the wake of that historic rugby first, US sports enthusiasts will be witness this year to the XVIII Summer Olympic Games in Athens.

What more timely and appropriate moment for an entertaining visit to the past for a brief review of rugby and the Olympic Games?

Rugby and the Olympic Games

While the Olympics can be traced to the religious festivals of the ancient Greeks at least as far back as 776 BC, the modern Olympic Games were resurrected at the end of the 19th century in 1896.

Though rugby has been excluded from the Olympic Games for the past 80 years, the sport was featured in four of the first seven Olympiads. As it came to pass, the United States would shock the world and win Olympic gold in rugby twice – in the final two appearances of the sport in the Olympics, in 1920 and 1924.

Stirrings have occurred periodically over the past quarter century to reintroduce rugby as an Olympic sport. Rugby is a member of the IOC, and a part of the Association of IOC-Recognized International Sports Federations (ARISF), necessary for consideration for inclusion in the Games. Unsuccessful attempts were made to add rugby to the Olympics by the Soviets in 1980 at Moscow and by Korea in 1988 in Seoul.

In the past few years, hopes have periodically arisen to have the sevens version serve as a demonstration sport in anticipation of becoming a full medal competition. The effort failed for the 2004 Games.

Rugby And the IOC:
From de Coubertin To Rogge

An interesting connection between rugby and the Olympics has arisen in 2004 and offers a fascinating link to the very origins of the modern Games.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator and father of the modern Olympics, formed the International Olympic Committee in 1894 as a prelude to the first modern Games in 1986. It was de Coubertin who introduced rugby to the II Olympiad in 1900. Rugby was one of his true passions. He refereed the first ever French Championship final, won by the Racing Club in 1892, and was sympathetic to the subsequent inclusion of rugby in his ambitions for a worldwide sports festival.

Fast forward just over a century to the current IOC President, Jacques Rogge, who was elected to his position in 2001. Rogge, a Belgian orthopedic surgeon who speaks five languages, was a three-time Olympic sailor for Belgium - Mexico (1968), Munich (1972) and Montreal (1976). But of great interest to the rugby world, is the fact that Jacques Rogge is a rugby enthusiast and a former Belgian rugby international.

So at this moment in history, we have come full circle. It was a rugby enthusiast who launched the modern Olympics, and we can hope that the current IOC president shall offer a knowledgeable and supportive ear to rugby’s quest to rejoin the biggest sports showcase on the planet.

The first modern Olympics (1896) took place in Athens and featured nine sports. Eight more sports were added to the second Olympics in 1900 in Paris, including the game of rugby.

1900 Olympics (Paris): France

Nineteen countries entered the 1900 Games and three sent rugby teams: Britain, France and Germany.

It is important to consider the early Games in the context of their reintroduction and the times, economically and politically. They were not the international spectator monolith that they are in today’s universe of instantaneous communication to a global audience. They were a nascent attempt to establish a worldwide expression of sport as a peaceful and healthy component of culture. Early participation was, not surprisingly, more cautious and cost-conscious, and far less than a full gathering of nations, though it quickly became so over the years.

With this in mind, these first three participants chose clubs to represent them: Britain sent the Moseley Wanderers, Germany Eintracht Frankfort and host France entered their Paris club. There was no round robin play between these three fifteens.

Tries were worth three points then, and would remain so until 1971. Host France played each of the other two, defeating Germany 27-17 and Britain 27-8 to win the first gold medal in rugby. Germany was awarded the silver, and Britain the bronze on the scoring differential.

1904 Olympics (St Louis): No Rugby

After rugby’s inaugural appearance as an Olympic sport in 1900, it was absent from the third Olympiad at St Louis in 1904, when only 13 countries, the fewest ever, competed.

1908 Olympics (London): Australia

In 1908, with 22 teams and nearly twice the prior highest number of athletes participating, rugby was an Olympic sport for the second time in Olympiad IV in London. Scotland and Ireland were at odds with Britain at the time and declined invitations to compete, as did the Welsh.

The host United Kingdom was represented by Cornwall, the 1907 county champion. Defending medallist France withdrew in the eleventh hour, which left Australia as the only other remaining entrant.

Australia was scheduled to compete in the London Olympics in conjunction with their inaugural tour of the United Kingdom in 1908/09, in which they would ultimately go 25-5-1 in their 31 matches. The Wallabies went into the Olympic match as the clear favorite based upon their 18-5 defeat of Cornwall in their third tour match.

They outscored the UK seven tries to one, to win the gold medal with a 32-3 victory; and with just the one match, no bronze was awarded.

1912 Olympics (Stockholm): No Rugby

Rugby was off the program in Stockholm’s Olympiad V in 1912; and de Coubertin and the IOC awarded the VI Olympics (1916) to Berlin with the thought that it would offer an incentive for peace in Germany. Once WW I began in 1914, the offer was not withdrawn, in expectations of a brief conflict. When the war continued, de Coubertin refused to shift the Games to a non-involved nation, in the absence of a German offer to withdraw as host.

1916: Olympics (Berlin) Cancelled

As the horrors of World War I intervened and persisted into 1915, it became apparent to all that Germany could not possibly host, and the Games were cancelled. Olympiad VI went into history as the games without a competition.

1920 Olympics (Antwerp): United States

While some people are aware that the US is the defending Olympic rugby champion, with their victory over France in 1924, less are aware that the US also won Olympic gold in 1920.

After World War I, which ended in 1918 and left 10 million dead in the fields of Western Europe, Olympiad VII was awarded to Belgium. It was a tribute to their heroic resistance and suffering under four years of occupation after the German invasion.

A total of 29 countries, one more than participated in the war, sent a record 2,607 athletes to Antwerp in 1920. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria were excluded from the Games.

Rugby was one of the announced sports, and the US Olympic Committee sanctioned a US side to accompany the Yank’s Olympic contingent to the Games.

Rugby was not widely played in the US around the turn of the century, when it first appeared in the Olympics. In 1906, rugby union enjoyed a growth in popularity, particularly in California, where major universities, including the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford, had withdrawn from football - the "American game" - with concerns about brutality and professionalism.

An American Universities side of rugby All Americans had toured Australia and New Zealand in 1910. The California schools played before crowds of 20,000 at home and toured British Columbia to compete for an unofficial Coast crown.

US Rugby: Mostly In California

After WW I, the American game (football) once again gained pre-eminence on the West Coast.

But rugby was now well established there, and an undefeated Cal-Berkeley tour to British Columbia in 1920 precipitated a movement to send an Olympic rugby team to represent the US in Antwerp. The USOC sanctioned an All American side, with the stipulation - given the fact that US rugby was heavily concentrated in the California area - that the effort be underwritten by the California Rugby Union and the chosen players. Selection to the team

was left to the California RU and its president, W Harry Maloney.

CRU officials and players, with the assistance of AAU representative Sam Goodman, created fundraisers. Dances and baseball games were held for donations; and individual contributions were gathered from throughout the local community, from grocers and fruit markets to shoe shops and laundries.

Selections were made from a pool of 42 players in three intra-squad trial matches. The team was composed mainly of players from Stanford, Cal-Berkeley and Santa Clara, with the remaining California club players recently graduated from the collegiate ranks.

Notable players included Stanford’s Dan Carroll, an Australian gold medallist center who had scored two tries in the 1908 Games. Carroll, now a naturalized US citizen, was the player/coach of the 1920 US team and destined to win another rugby gold in Antwerp.

Stanford rugger, Robert L "Dink" Templeton, was an Olympic high jumper. Morris Kirksey, another Stanford man, lost the 1920 Olympic gold in the 100 meters by 18 inches to fellow American and world record holder Charles Paddock. Kirksey then added a gold in the 4x100 relay to his silver in the 100. Cal-Berkeley’s Charles L Tilden, Jr was selected captain of the first US Olympic rugby team and served as manager as well.

The accommodations provided at Antwerp for the first post-war Olympians were austere in a nation ravaged by World War I and struggling to rebuild from the carnage. The US team, including the rugby players, had to endure a trans-Atlantic crossing aboard an overcrowded Army transport ship, the Sherman, and nearly revolted when confronted with their quarters in Antwerp. After the reinstatement to the US contingent of a triple jumper who had been thrown off the team when he found better lodgings on his own, the US athletes relented, but still had to accept their poor accommodations.

United States 8,
France 0

Antwerp, Belgium
September 5, 1920

With the rugby competition scheduled for September, the British RU chose not to enter, claiming that they could not adequately prepare a proper side as it was well out of season. France, which did enter, was the continental champion from the previous season, and so Czechoslovakia and Romania saw no point in attending.

This reduced the field to a two-teams, just as it had in the last Games. The young United States team would face France in the third competition for Olympic gold. France, seeking a second rugby gold medal, were the clear favorites.

A report submitted by US captain Charles Tilden humbly described an 8-0 victory over France that earned the US the Olympic gold medal, only the third ever given. The US, with a mostly collegiate side from just one region of the country, had shut out the European champion before the second largest crowd at the stadium during the entire Olympics. After a scoreless first half, the US scored a converted try and a ‘field goal’ to capture the gold and leave the silver for scoreless France.

A team largely of Californians had bootstrapped themselves half way across the world on their own nickel and, against tremendous odds, had become 1920 Olympic champions by beating the country of de Coubertin in the land of Rogge.

Their monumental achievement went nearly unnoticed by the American press. With tennis, track and field, swimming, wrestling and boxing going on simultaneously, the press had little time to cover the US rugby team. In fact, reporters were generally unaware of the US side’s inclusion in the Games until they discovered, quite by accident, the team training behind the stadium. Cables home after the historic victory noted the score, without noting the names of the participants or details of the match.

US Goes 3-1 On French Tour

The play of the Americans was so impressive that the French Rugby Union, under the auspices of the French government, invited them to tour France after the conclusion of the Games.

Sixteen players stayed on, and first met a Southeastern France Select side in Lyons on September 19th, where they won 26-0.

On September 22nd in Toulouse the US defeated a South of France side 14-3 and won again on September 25th in Bordeaux 6-3 over a Southwest France side, their third victory in a span of just six days.

The undermanned US squad returned to Paris to take on a team representative of all of France, and on October 10th they lost their only match on French soil, 14-3, to finish their tour 3-1.

Everywhere the US band of Californians played, they drew record crowds. People were anxious to see this team from a place where rugby was largely unknown, that took to school the best the French had to offer.

1920 US Olympics Roster

Daniel Carroll, Player/Coach
Charles W Doe, Jr
George EW Davis
George W Fish
James P Fitzpatrick
Mathew Hazeltine
Joseph G Hunter
Morris Kirksey
CT Meechan
John Muldoon Jr
William S Muldoon
John T O’Neil
John C Patrick
HL Righter
Colby E Slater
Rudolph J Scholz
Robert L Templeton
Charles L Tilden Jr (c), Mgr

Harold von Schmidt
Davis M Wallace
James D Winston
Heaton L Wrenn
H Wilfred Maloney, Trainer
Sam Goodman, Business Mgr

1924 Olympics (Paris): United States

Rugby became part of two consecutive Olympic Games when it was included in the Olympiad VIII in Paris in 1924. It would also mark the first time a defending champion would attend, and the first time an Olympic rugby title was successfully defended, as the United States defeated France 17-3 in the final.

It marked the sport’s fourth competition in the seven Olympiads since 1896; and would be the last rugby Olympic competition to this day, 80 years hence.

Details of the United States’ 1924 victories over Romania and France were included in a reprint of manager Sam Goodman’s account, which appeared in the January 1984 issue of Rugby, Vol 9, No 8.

The 1920 Olympic championship team was disbanded after their triumph, and when an invitation was sent in September of 1923 to attend the Games in Paris the following May, the scramble began to throw together a side. Open invitations went out in the press to any rugby or football players to attend practices. Several of the 1920 side were located, and eight would go to their second Olympics.

Colby Slater was elected captain of the 1924 squad and Charles Doe the vice-captain. Both were veterans of the 1920 US Olympic team. The US team played a match against a select side in New York before sailing to England, where they participated in several matches in preparation for Paris.

United States 17,
France 3

Paris, France
May 18, 1924

France was again the host of the Games, and anxious to avenge their 1920 loss to the US and win a second rugby gold, as they had when they first hosted and won in 1900. Many other countries declined to send teams, one factor being fear of French fan violence, expense being another that kept southern hemisphere sides away.

Romania, the third nation in the pool, were trampled by France in a 13-try 61-3 rout, led by four tries from Adolphe Jauguery, widely considered the best player in the world. The US shut out Romania 37-0, winning every lineout and losing only one scrum in a nine-try effort, with half of the starting pack held out.

The US stepped onto the pitch for the final surrounded by a high wire fence to keep the crowd of nearly 40,000 at bay.

Goodman wrote, "In 1924, the French were 20-1 favorites – for about five minutes." The French got the ball to their hero Jauguery on three successive possessions, and on three successive possessions he was laid out, the third time unconscious. He was helped from the field and France went on with 14 men, since no substitutions were allowed.

Marcel-Frederic Lubin was sent off for punching, and when the crowd threatened to riot, Slater asked Welsh referee Sam Freethy to permit his return. Lubin twice refused, and Slater physically lifted him up and returned him to his position on the field.

The US led 3-0 at the half, and their fierce tackling continued unabated. Goodman reported that in the second half, two French players, wanting no part of the contact, quit the game ‘cold’ and the US won 17-3, to capture their second straight gold medal in the last Olympic rugby match ever played.

As the match wound down, pandemonium erupted in the crowd. American supporters were beaten unconscious and the field pelted with everything the crowd could get their hands on. The US team was rushed off the pitch in the din of riotous uproar. Unable to hear over the mob, they could only assume that the band was playing their Anthem as they witnessed the flag raised.

IOC Votes Rugby Out Of
IX Olympiad, 1928

In spite of the fact that rugby, which attracted but three nations, drew more spectators than track and field, the IOC opted to include sports that were more popular to competing nations. They also stated a preference for more individual sports, and women’s events. So they voted rugby out of the Olympics for the IX Olympiad in Amsterdam.