Remember the excitement of the 1924 Olympics in Chariots of Fire? That was nothing compared with what the U.S. rugby team did to the French at those games.
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.
“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!”
If these athletes expected to be welcomed by their French hosts with kisses on both cheeks, they were unpleasantly surprised. The members of the U.S. Olympic rugby team were the target of Gallic hostility from the moment they stepped onto French soil. French journalists branded them “saloon brawlers and streetfighters” after a brouhaha in the port of Boulogne, where immigration officials mistakenly refused the team entry and the American players—many of whom had been seasick during the unusually turbulent crossing from England— forced their way off the ferry onto dry land.
From that inauspicious start the Americans’ reputation only deteriorated, though as the surviving members of the team are quick to point out, any unseemly antics were either press exaggerations or simply a response to the team’s frightful treatment by its hosts. “If they wanted to push us around,” says Charlie Doe, a ninety-year-old veteran of both the 1920 and 1924 teams still living in California, “then we damn well pushed back.”
True to form, when Paris authorities canceled previously arranged warm-up games between the U.S. rugby team and local clubs and restricted American work-outs to a patch of scrubland, 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.
By game time the French press had whipped up fierce anti-American sentiment on the streets of Paris. U.S. players were insulted and spat upon whenever they dared venture outside their hotel. Even members of Paris’s American expatriate colony were steering clear of the ruffian ruggers.
On May 11, a week after France defeated Rumania, 61-3, for a berth in the final, the United States trounced the hapless Rumanians, 37-0, with six of the American team’s best players warming the bench. The French crowd cheered whenever the Rumanians got their hands on the ball and booed every American score. But the American victory guaranteed what every French rugby fan craved: the chance for France to redeem its defeat in Antwerp four years earlier by walloping the neophyte American team.
The finale of the 1924 Paris Olympic rugby tournament was played at Colombes Stadium on the suffocating spring afternoon of Sunday, May 18, before a capacity crowd of fifty thousand Frenchmen oblivious of the FOC’s public appeal for calm. Paris bookies had set the odds at twenty to one; the point spread was twenty. And no wonder: The French national team not only was European champion but included the legendary Adolphe Jauréguy, the fastest rugby player alive.
The mob packing the stands expected an easy gold medal. But from the kickoff it was obvious the young American players intended to avenge their treatment at the hands of the French. “They didn’t know it, but they had prepared us mentally to play the game of our lives,” says the team’s vice-captain, Charlie Doe.
Two minutes after the opening whistle, Adolphe Jauréguy received a pass on the wing. The crowd roared as its hero set off for the American goal line. But from out of nowhere came Lefty Rogers, who leveled the Frenchman with a tooth-rattling tackle. On the next play Jauréguy’s stride was broken by another lunging tackle by Rogers. Then it was the turn of Alan Valentine, who sprinted the width of the field to hurl his 210-pound bulk into Jauréguy.
“And that was the end of our French friend,” says Charlie Doe. Oblivious of the howling crowd, Jauréguy was carted off the field by medics—“like a sack of potatoes,” according to Doe.
At halftime the score was 3-0, the Americans leading, and as the team’s manager, Sam Goodman, put it, they had the French team “buffaloed.” The French players were devastated by the ferocity of the Americans’ football-style tackles, though, as they admitted after the game, all the hits were within the rules.
The second half was the United States all the way. Battered into submission, the French defense crumbled in the face of wave upon wave of American attacking moves. “Our men,” wrote André Glarner of the Excelsior sports newspaper, “too frail and hesitant, too fragile, could not hold up before the admirable athletes that were before them.” With a humiliating defeat imminent, the crowd turned nasty. American supporters were beaten up in the stands, and their bodies were passed down to the field and picked up by ambulances. “I saw those poor fellows lying there and just assumed they were dead,” says Cleaveland. “We were sure it was only a matter of time before they got their hands on us.”
Toward the end of the game the United States was scoring almost at will. Tricky Dick Hyland confounded the French players with what a Paris journalist described as “disconcerting foot changes.” Only the referee’s unorthodox interpretations of rules prevented the American team from running up a score of thirty or forty points. Terrified of the potentially catastrophic consequences of a complete wipeout by the Americans, the referee called back at least four touchdowns by Hyland and Cleaveland for dubious infractions.
When the final whistle blew, the score stood at 17-3, and the French crowd was hysterical. “We had no idea what was going to happen to us,” says Cleaveland. “They were throwing bottles and rocks over the fence and clawing at us through the railing.”
Charlie Doe saw the band pick up its instruments and the conductor wave his baton, but he couldn’t hear a single note through the cacophony of booing and catcalls. “Then we saw the Stars and Stripes being raised and realized they were playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,’” he says. “We had completely forgotten about the medal ceremony, which took place in front of tens of thousands of people who wanted to tear us to pieces.”
The attitude of the French press changed dramatically after the rout. French journalists agreed, in the interest of the remainder of the Games, to portray the American ruggers as heroes. “The American fifteen is comprised of true athletes, all fast, strong, energetic, and possessing athletic qualities of which we are rarely aware in France,” wrote Glarner. The fickle French public responded in kind. “When you’re a hero in Paris, that’s something!” says Cleveland. “All we had to do was walk into a bar or restaurant and there would be clapping and free drinks all around.”
After several weeks of what Cleaveland remembers as “unmitigated pleasure” in Paris, the American team returned to the United States, where most of the players gave up rugby and went on to successful careers: Alan Valentine became a full professor of arts and letters at Yale and later the president of the University of Rochester; Lefty Rogers, who died during the writing of this article, pioneered in the field of chest surgery; Charlie Doe became one of the nation’s leading geologists; Dick Hyland went on to be a controversial sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times; and Linn Parish, who scored two touchdowns against France at Colombes, was a decorated World War II hero renowned for his rescues of downed American fliers behind German lines. He died shortly before the war’s end. “Not only were my teammates great athletes,” says Cleaveland, who divides his time between homes in New Mexico, California, and England after a successful career as a mining engineer, “but they were an exceptional group of men.”
Shortly after the 1924 Olympics the International Olympic Committee canceled rugby as an Olympic sport, even though it had sold far more tickets than the track-and-field events of that year celebrated in the motion picture Chariots of Fire. The reasons for the ban: the French crowds’ appalling behavior and the lack of widespread international participation. Despite the spectacular American victory, rugby in the United States immediately went back into hibernation. 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 imagination. “If we had had that kind of coverage back then,” says Doe, “rugby might be the great American pastime today.”
Instead, rugby in the United States languishes in obscurity, struggling for recognition despite a revival in the sport since the early 1960s. America today has no international triumphs to boast about, but when American ruggers gather to discuss their woes, someone will inevitably bring up the events of the VIII Olympiad. “Remember 1924,” the person will say, toasting the sultry afternoon sixty-five years ago when fifteen young Americans flipped the international rugby establishment on its head. “Remember 1924.”