Note: This is the fifth in a series about early Cal Olympians. The earlier stories were about Robert Edgren, Cal's first Olympian, Ludy Langer, Cal's first Olympic swimmer, Harry Liversedge, Cal's most heroic Olympian, and 1920 Rugby, Cal's first Olympic Gold Medalists.
In 1920, the inexperienced United States Olympic rugby team pulled off a stunning upset over France in the Antwerp games to win the championship, and the six players on that team from the University of California brought Olympic Gold home to Berkeley for the first time. But the triumph of U.S. Rugby in 1920 received remarkably little attention in the United States, and did nothing to stem the decline of interest in the sport, which had been waning for several years. But interest was revived among those Californians who still loved the sport when, in 1923, they received a challenge from the French, demanding that the United States send a team to the 1924 Olympic in Paris, so the French would have a chance to regain their honor. The Americans agreed, sending a team to Paris that included three players from the University of California. The adventures of that team in Paris make one of the wildest stories in Olympic history.
The American and French teams scrambling for the ball in their 1924 Gold Medal rematch.
The 1924 U.S. Olympic rugby team was, if anything, even less experienced than the 1920 team had been. Most of the Americans had not played competitive rugby since 1920, but they were willing to give the Olympics another shot. The 1924 team included seven players from the 1920 team and 15 new players. They were all from northern California. Nine players were Stanford alumni, three were Cal alumni, and five were Santa Clara alumni. Three others played on teams from Bay Area sports clubs. The final two players had attended Cornell and Oxford, but now lived in the Bay Area. The three players from the University of California were Colby "Babe" Slater, George Dixon, and Edward Graff. Also on the team was Babe Slater's younger brother, Norman, who had just graduated from Berkeley High School. Babe Slater already had an Olympic Gold Medal from the 1920 games, and he was chosen by his teammates to be their captain.
The veterans of the 1920 Olympics did what they could to teach the newcomers the basics of rugby before they left California, conducting as many grueling practices as they could to improve their conditioning, as well to teach them the game. As in 1920, the team took the train from California to New York, and then sailed for Europe. But this time they stopped in England to play some of the top English teams. Once again, the British were refusing to send a rugby team to the Olympics, this time because the May dates for Olympic rugby conflicted with the schedule of their own British rugby leagues. The American lost all the games in England, but they played respectably. And the English were happy to give the inexperienced Americans some pointers and strategic advice on how to beat the French.
The 1924 United States Olympic Rugby team. The players from the University of California were: Captain Colby "Babe" Slater (back row, fifth from left), Edward Graff (middle row, far left), and George Dixon (middle row, far right). Babe Slater's brother, Norman, is in the back row, third from the right.
The team then took a boat for France. Things did not get off on the right foot when the French authorities would not allow the seasick players to get off the boat for six hours because the French Olympic Committee had failed to process their visa paperwork. Finally, the angry players, "formed a rugby-style scrum to take on the immigration officials blocking their way," and forced their way off the boat. The French press branded the Californians, "street-fighters and saloon brawlers."
In 1924 there were three countries with rugby teams in the Olympics: the United States, France, and Romania. As in 1920, the French were the odds-on favorites. And they seemed determined to win this time, destroying Romania 61-3 in their first game on May 4, with the French star Adolphe Jaurenguy scoring four tries. After that game, even the American captain, Babe Slater, wrote in his diary that the French, "have a very strong team and I frankly believe our chances of beating them are slim, although we are sure going to let them know they have been in a battle."
Things turned ugly between the American and French teams when the American team manager, Sam Goodman, refused to accept the referee selected for their game, British Admiral Percy Royds. Why Goodman objected to Royds is not clear, as the team's coach and its captain, Slater, had accepted him. The French were livid, and rejected all the proposed alternatives. Goodman then threatened to pull the American team out of the Olympics. Next, the French denied the American team access to practice fields anywhere near the Olympic venues, leaving the Americans to practice on an empty lot near their hotel. The French press began printing false stories that the Americans were not really amateurs. Another controversy arose when the Americans were prohibited from filming their games.The French Olympic Committee claimed that they had an exclusive deal with a film company, but the American insisted that the French had no business selling rights involving the American team. On this issue, at least, the Americans finally prevailed.
The Americans finally had enough. Cal's Slater led his team down to the Olympic stadium where they found a ladder, climbed over the fence, and practiced on the field, in disregard of the French ban on their use of the facilities. While they were doing so, their money and valuables were stolen out of the stadium dressing room, even though they had paid the French attendant to guard their belongings.
When the Americans finally got their chance to play against Romanians on May 11, the French crowd cheered the Romanians and booed and hissed at the Americans from the beginning of the game to its end. But the Americans won nevertheless, 37-0. This set up the Gold Medal game between the United States and France for the following week. In the interim, the American players found themselves insulted and even spat upon by Parisians when they left their hotel. The French Olympic Committee became concerned about what might happen at the USA-France Gold Medal game, and pleaded for calm and sportsmanship. But the French press fanned the flames. One paper, the Petit Journal, even claimed that the Americans had lost the 1920 Olympic championship:
The American players who will meet the French on Sunday at Colombes Stadium have not, truly speaking, even the most rudimentary knowledge of he game of rugby, which, moreover, they do not practice in California. . . . In 1920 they did not win the Olympic contest, even though they try to pretend so, this contest was not played. In September they took took part in a match they called "Olympic," disputed at Antwerp, amid general indifference, against a French team not at all in training, they suffered a heavy defeat.
Just before the Gold Medal game: the American captain, Cal's Babe Slater, the referee, Welshman C.E. Freethy, and the French captain, Rene Lasserre.
May 18, 1924, the day of the Gold Medal game, finally arrived. The French were 20-1 favorites. The French Olympic Committee had raised the height of the fences around the field at Colombes Stadium, and deployed large numbers of police to try to control the angry crowd of 50,000 French fans.
All three Cal players on the American team, "Babe" Slater, Ed Graff, and George Dixon, were in the starting fifteen. The Americans repeatedly pinned the French deep with good tactical kicking, and made some great charges up the field, which were only stopped by American ball handling errors. About five minutes into the game, the French dropped the ball near their own line, allowing the Americans to score and go up 3-0. Then the French star, Adolphe Jaurenguy, was leveled by Stanford's "Lefty" Rodgers. The crowd became even more infuriated. Santa Clara's John O'Neill later said, "As soon as it became evident that the French team, favorites in betting and backed by many to defeat us by at least twenty points, were up against it, the booing and jeering became terrific." Meanwhile, the French team retaliated by kicking and punching the American players in the scrum. John O'Neill was knocked out of the game after a kick in the stomach caused internal injuries. The crowd cheered his injury.
"Babe" Slater, foreground, goes after the ball during the 1924 Gold Medal game.
Then Jaurenguy was hit again by American Alan Valentine. "And that was the end of him," said Charles Doe, a player from Stanford. Jaurenguy was carried off the field, in Doe's words, "like a sack of potatoes." Most of the American players were more used to playing football than rugby, and they tackled accordingly. Although their hits were, as even the French players later conceded, permissible under the rules of rugby, such hits were not at all what the French players or their fans were used to. The crowd began to turn into a mob, and the police had to protect American fans in the stands who began coming under attack. Eight American art students were beaten with canes and had to be taken to the hospital. "I thought they were dead," said Stanford's Norman Cleaveland, "We were sure it was only a matter of time before they got their hands on us."
Adolphe Jaurenguy being carried off the field in the Gold Medal game.
At the half the score was still 3-0 in favor of the United States. But the Americans' unexpectedly fierce play had the French on the ropes. The American team was much better conditioned than the French, who had evidently taken them too lightly. The French became winded and increased their deliberate fouling, punching and kicking American players with impunity, as the only way to slow them down. Early in the second half, the Americans scored twice more to build an 11-0 lead. But when the American defenders were unable to field a high French kick that landed over the American goal line and took an unexpected bounce, a French player fell on it for a try. Although the French conversion failed, the score was now 11-3. But the Americans added two more tries late in the game (both with failed conversations). When the whistle finally blew, the Americans had won 17-3.
Jeux Olympiques 1924 - Rugby - Finale USA b France 17 - 3 (via Fredericrugby)
Thanks to the Americans' insistence on the right to film their own games, we have the above video highlights of the 1924 Gold Medal match. Additional youtube video of the match is available here.
Now the players had to get out of the stadium in one piece. The Star-Spangled Banner began to be played, but it was almost completely drowned out by boos and jeers. The San Francisco Chronicle reported, "An American photographer, while attempting to take a picture of the American flag at the top of the Olympic pole, was hit by various missiles thrown by the enraged spectators, and was compelled to take cover." Charles Doe later said, "the medal ceremony took place in front of thousands of people who wanted to rip us to shreds." And Norman Cleaveland described the crowd, "throwing bottles and rocks and clawing at us through the fence." The team was hustled off the field surrounded by 250 police officers.
A few days later, the Americans celebrated at a grand banquet in Paris, sponsored by the embarrassed French rugby authorities. It was attended by no less a personage than the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII of Britain). The French captain, Rene Lasserre, proclaimed, "We were outplayed by better conditioned men. I don't see what the crowd was kicking up about. I have no complaint to make."
The United Press sports editor, Henry J. Farrell, explained the magnitude of the American victory this way:
Rugby is practically extinct in the United States . . . Many of the players who went to Paris and won the championship by beating the French team 17 to 3 had not played from the time they left Antwerp four years ago until they went out to train for this team. Under these circumstances, the Americans were presented with the same difficulties that a French baseball team would have in beating the pennant winner of the Class A league, let alone the winner of the World Series. . . What happened to the American boys from the time they arrived is well known, and it is too distasteful to be repeated. They got the rawest deal that any team ever got in any country. But they won, and if an American team ever earned glory for demonstrating every trait that American wants the world to regard as American characteristics, those football players won it. Their victory and their conduct under fire is the brightest entry that has been scored on all the pages of America's international sports records.
Cal fans can be proud that three of our own, Colby "Babe" Slater, Edward Graff, and George Dixon, were members of that team.
Many years later, their teammate Charles Doe compared the 1924 rugby victory to the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" hockey win: "Our victory in '24 made the hockey win against the Soviets look like an everyday occurrence. If we had that kind of coverage rugby might be the great American pastime today." Instead, rugby remained a relatively obscure sport in the United States and after the debacle in Paris the sport was eliminated from the Olympic games. Rugby finally will be back in the games in 2016, but until then, Slater, Graff, Dixon, and the other members of the 1924 American team remain the reigning Olympic champions.
Phillips, Ellen, The VIII Olympiad, World Sport Research & Publications, Inc., Los Angeles (1996)
Rugby at the Olympics, RugbyFootballHistory.com (2012)
Rugby Union at the 1924 Summer Olympics, Wikipedia (2012)
Rugby Union at the Summer Olympics, Wikipedia (2012)
Ryan, Mark, For the Glory: Two Olympics, Two Wars, Two Heroes, JR Books, London (2009)
Tibballs, Geoff, The Olympics' Strangest Moments: Extraordinary But True Tales from the History of the Olympic Games, Anova Books, London (2004)
(NOTE: For anyone wanting more detailed accounts of rugby at the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, I highly recommend the book by Mark Ryan.)