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An American Coup in Paris
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.
July/August 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
The mob expected easy gold, but the Americans meant to avenge the treatment they had received.
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.”