An American Coup in Paris

PrintPrintEmailEmail

It is springtime in post-World War I Paris, the final day of the rugby tournament at the VIII Olympiad, to be exact, and fifty thousand Frenchmen are filing into Colombes Stadium to watch the mighty French national rugby team win the first gold medal of the 1924 Olympics. Their opponents? A ragtag band of California college kids calling themselves the USA Olympic rugby team. Barely two hours later the novice American rugby team has pulled off what the United Press sports editor Henry L. Farrell was to call “the brightest entry that has been scored on all the pages of American international sports records.” But U.S. supporters lie beaten unconscious on the sidelines, and the Yankee players have to be rescued from a rioting crowd by dozens of armed police. And rugby is never again played as an Olympic sport.

Few Americans are aware that rugby was played at the Olympics on four occasions between 1900 and 1924, let alone know what happened when the last gold medal was up for grabs. What is even more astonishing is that in 1924 the USA Olympic rugby team was the only American rugby team in existence.

Despite a brief flurry of interest in California at the turn of the century, rugby had become extinct in the United States by the outbreak of World War I, overwhelmed by the rapid growth of its professional offspring, American football. The sport had not been played competitively in the United States for more than a decade when, in September 1923, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) received an urgent request from its French counterpart for an American team to take part in the rugby event at the 1924 Olympics. England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales had refused to enter because of the French fans’ reputation for violence; New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa could not afford to travel to Europe. So far only Rumania had challenged France for the gold medal, and its team was not expected to put up even the semblance of a contest.

 
 

Although French Olympic officials were anxious to sign up another national team for the event, they were not looking for a serious challenger. The French Olympic Committee (FOC) had scheduled the rugby tournament to kick off the 1924 Games, and they were determined that France should bag the prestigious first gold medal.

 

The United States was the FOC’s ideal candidate. Officially the United States was the defending Olympic rugby champion, after upsetting France for the gold at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. But European rugby pundits had dismissed that victory as a fluke, and anyway, as the French knew, the American national rugby team had been disbanded after the 1920 Games, almost all the players had given up rugby, and the sport had died out in the United States.

Most of the team had never played rugby, but they were probably the world’s finest group of athletes.

“They were looking for a punching bag,” comments eighty-seven-year-old Norman Cleaveland, a Stanford all-American halfback of the 1920s and one of the first athletes to respond to the recruiting call put out through the press. “We were told to go to Paris and take our beatings like gentlemen.”

The team arrived in Paris on April 27, 1924, a full month before the remainder of the American Olympic contingent, after a six-thousand-mile journey from Oakland, California. In the previous six months a squad of twenty-two superb athletes—primarily Stanford students, including four veterans of the 1920 team—had been recruited and trained in San Francisco. Most of the players had never before played rugby; Charlie Austin, the U.S. coach, was relying on his team’s size, speed, stamina, and raw athletic ability to compensate for its deficient technique. Still, their vigorous shipboard work-outs aboard the SS America as it steamed toward Europe were always followed by chalkboard sessions on rugby rules and tactics.

The team picked up its last member, Alan Valentine, in England. Valentine was an all-American football player and Rhodes scholar who, since arriving to study in England, had adapted his football talents and become one of the finest rugby forwards of the era. But he was by no means a standout on the team. The men of the 1924 USA Olympic rugby team were probably the finest assembly of all-around athletes in the world.

“We could have fielded a first-class team of any kind,” says Cleaveland, who had himself been courted by the pros after graduating from Stanford. In addition to Valentine and Cleaveland, there was Dudley DeGroot, another Stanford all-American, who also lettered in basketball and was a college swimming champion; William (“Lefty”) Rogers, Stanford’s basketball captain; Caesar Manelli, a star of Santa Clara University’s baseball, basketball, and football programs; and the famously immodest Richard (“Tricky Dick”) Hyland, a Stanford football halfback. When an American sportswriter compared Hyland to the great athlete Jim Thorpe, his response was, “Hell, Thorpe never had my swerve!”