An American Victory in Paris
By Mark Jenkins
It is the springtime of 1924 in Paris, the final of the Paris Olympics rugby tournament, to be exact, and 50,000 Frenchmen are filing into colombes Stadium to watch their mighty national rugby team win the first gold medal of the VIII Olympiad. Their opponents? A rag-tag band of American college kids comprising the USA Olympic rugby team.
Barely two hours later, the novice American rugby team has trounced France, U.S. supporters lay beaten unconscious on the sidelines, and the victorious Yanks have to be rescued from the rioting crowd by armed gendarmes. The American victory, which marked rugby's last appearance as an Olympic sport, was a feat then, called by UP sports Editor Henry J. Farrell "the brightest entry scored on all the pages of American international sports records."
Few Americans know that rugby was played in the early years of modern Olympic competition, let alone that the USA won the last Olympic rugby gold medals up for grabs. But if the news that an American rugby team brought home Olympic gold medals in 1924 comes as a surprise today, it was nothing less than astounding when it happened sixty four years ago. In September 1923, the U.S. Olympic Committee agreed to send an American rugby team to the 1924 Paris Olympics - despite the fact that rugby hadn't been played competitively in the U.S. for a decade. Rugby had been all the rage in California high schools and colleges at the turn of the century, but the sport had died out by the outbreak of World War I.
This was well known to the French Olympic Committee in 1923. The FOC had scheduled the rugby event to kick off the 1924 Paris Games, and lowly Romania and the USA were to provide only token opposition for the European Champion French national rugby team picked to win the first gold medal in grand style.
"They were looking for a punching bag," says 87-year-old Norman Cleaveland, a Stanford All-American halfback of the twenties who was one of the first athletes to respond to the call putout through the press in the Fall of 1923. "We were told to go to Paris and take our beatings like gentlemen."
The USA Olympic rugby team arrived in Paris on April 27, 1924, after a 6,000 mile journey by train, bus, ship, and ferry from Oakland, California. In the six months since the FOC's invitation, a squad of 22 superb athletes - including a slew of California football and basketball All-Americans -had been recruited and trained in San Francisco. Most of the players had never before played rugby, but coach Charlie Austin was relying on his team's size, speed, stamina, and raw athletic ability to compensate for its technical deficiencies.
But if these young American athletes expected to be welcomed to France with kisses on both cheeks, they were unpleasantly surprised. The team was the target of hostility even before the players set foot on French soil. French journalists branded them "streetfighters and saloon brawlers" after a brouhaha in the port of Boulogne where immigration officials mistakenly refused the team entry, and the players - many of whom had been seasick during the turbulent crossing - forced their way off the ship onto dry land.
The American rugby players' reputation only deteriorated. When Paris authorities cancelled previously arranged games against local club teams and restricted American workouts to a patch of scrub land next to their hotel, the players responded by marching down to Colombes Stadium, scaling the fence, and going through their paces on the hallowed turf.
"It wasn't the best way to conduct international affairs," concedes Norman Cleaveland, chuckling at the memory. "If they wanted to push us around," snarls 91-year-old Charlie Doe, who was vice-captain of the 1924 team, "then we damn well pushed back."
By game time the French press had whipped up fierce anti-American sentiment in Paris. During the USA's 37-0 thrashing of Romania on May I I (France defeated Romania 61-3 the week before), the French crowd booed every American score. In the days leading up to the final, the U.S. rugby players were insulted and sometimes even spat upon if they dared venture outside their hotel.
The final of the 1924 Paris Olympic rugby event was played at Colombes Stadium on Sunday, May 18, before a capacity crowd of 50,000 screeching, drunken Frenchmen who were oblivious to the FOC's public appeal for calm. Paris book has set the odds at twenty to one; the points spread was twenty. And no wonder: The French national rugby team was one of the greatest ever assembled, and included on its roster the legendary Adolphe Juarraguy, said to be the fastest rugby player alive. By comparison, most of the American players hadn't touched a rugby ball until six months earlier. The mob packing Colombes Stadium fully expected an easy gold medal for France to open the Paris Olympic Games.
But from the kickoff it was obvious the American players intended to avenge their treatment by the French. Two minutes after the opening whistle, Adolphe Juarraguy received a pass on the wing, and the crowd roared as its hero set off for the American line. But from out of nowhere came "Lefty" Rogers, Stanford's basketball captain, who leveled the famed Frenchman with a tooth-rattling tackle.
On the next play Juarraguy's stride was broken by another Rogers tackle. Then it was the turn of All-American and Rhodes Scholar Alan Valentine who had sprinted the width of the field to hurl his 210-lb bulk into the off-balance Juarraguy. "And that was the end of him," says Charlie Doe. Oblivious even to the sound of the howling crowd, Juarraguy was carted off the field, "like a sack of potatoes," according to Doe.
At halftime the score was only 3-0 in the USA's favor, but as team manager Sam Goodman put it, they had their opponents "buffaloed." The French players were devastated by the American football-style tackling, though as they admitted after the game, the hits were within the rules of the game.
In the second half the French defense crumbled in the wake of a series of ferocious American attacks. "Our men, " wrote Andre Glarner of the Exelsior newspaper, "too frail and hesitant, too fragile, could not hold up before the admirable athletes before them."
With a humiliating French defeat imminent, the crowd began earning its reputation for thuggery (many foreign teams refused to play in Paris because of French rugby hooliganism). American supporters were being beaten up in the stands, and their bodies passed down to the field to be collected by ambulances.
"I thought they were dead," says Norman Cleaveland. "We were sure it was only a matter of time before they got their hands on us."
When the final whistle blew, the score was 17-3, and the French crowd was hysterical. "They were throwing bottles and rocks and clawing at us through the fence, recalls Cleaveland. "We had no idea what was going to happen."
Charlie Doe saw the band pick up their instruments and conductor waving his baton, but, like his teammates, he couldn't hear a single note because of the cacophony of booing and catcalls.
"Then we saw the Stars and Stripes being raised and realized they were playing the Star Spangled Banner," says Doe. "We had completely forgotten about the medal ceremony which took place in front of tens of thousands of people who wanted to rip us to shreds." After the medal ceremony, the American rugby players were escorted to their locker room by dozens of gendarmes.
The attitude of the French press changed dramatically after their national team's routing. In the interest of the remainder of the Games, French journalists began to portray the American players as heroes. "The American team is comprised of true athletes, all fast, strong, energetic, and possessing athletic qualities of which we are rarely aware in France," wrote Glarner of the Exelsior.
The fickle French public responded in kind. "When you're a hero in Paris, that's something! All we had to do was walk in to a bar or restaurant and there would be free drinks all around," says Norman Cleaveland.
Shortly after the Paris Games, the International Olympic Committee cancelled rugby as an Olympic sport - even though rugby sold more tickets than the track and field events celebrated in the movie about the 1924 Olympics, "Chariots of Fire." Officials cited the French crowds' behavior and the lack of widespread international participation.
Despite the USA's spectacular 1924 Olympic rugby victory, rugby again slipped back into obscurity in the U.S. That astonishes modern observers, but as Charlie Doe points out, the Olympics were "not such a big deal" before the advent of television coverage, which today can propel an obscure sport like Olympic hockey into the public consciousness. "Our victory in '24 made the hockey win against the Soviets look like an everyday occurrence," says Doe. "If we had that kind of coverage rugby might be the great American pastime today."