An American Coup in Paris

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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.”