From The Vaults

27 July 2021
Rugby and the Olympics

A source of inspiration for the modern Olympic movement, rugby featured four times in the early 20th Century before triumphantly returning in the sevens format at Rio in 2016. Here's what happened in 1900, 1908, 1920, 1924 and 2016...

1900 Paris

Rugby made its debut in to the modern Olympics during the 1900 games in Paris. The Paris games were somewhat strange as they were held as part of the World Fair and so were spread out over 5 months with no proper opening ceremony. Events were so under promoted that many athletes who took part did not even realise they had participated in an Olympic Games! Despite this the games gave rise to some important firsts - they were the first to include women and they included the first known athlete of colour.

There were only 3 teams who took part in the inaugural rugby competition; France, Germany and Great Britain. France fielded an international side, FC 1880 Frankfurt represented Germany and Moseley Wanderers represented Great Britain. France played Germany first on the 14th October. Although Germany took an early first half lead France fought back to win 27-17. Great Britain were set to play France on Sunday 28th October and so after many players had finished up playing for their club, the team travelled to Paris late on the Saturday evening. France stormed ahead with a half time score of 21-0. Great Britain persevered in the second half and managed to convert a try but France's lead was too great and they lost 27-8. Great Britain and Germany did not play each other and so France became the first Olympic rugby gold medallists and Germany and Great Britain shared silver.

1908 London

Originally the 1908 games were awarded to Rome. When it became clear that Rome would not be ready in time, the games were reassigned to London giving Britain their first Olympics.

Although rugby had not been played during the 1904 St Louis games, it made a return in 1908. As with its first outing, there were only three teams to enter the competition, France, Great Britain who were being represented by Cornwall (the winners of the County Championship) and Australia, who were touring the British Isles at the time. France were unable to recruit enough players and so had to pull out last minute meaning that there was only a final to be played. This took place at White City Stadium on 26th October - a dark and miserable day by all accounts. Conditions were terrible, thick fog and mud hindered play and the ball became greasy and heavy after its many trips into the Olympic swimming pool next to the pitch!

Australia dealt well with the conditions and thrashed the Great Britain side winning 32-3.

1920 Antwerp

Having not featured in the 1912 Stockholm games, and the 1916 Berlin games cancelled due to WWI, rugby returned to the Olympics in 1920. Although this time there were only 2 teams participating - France and USA. Romania and Czechoslovakia pulled out of the competition and the British unions were not prepared to play as a combined team.

France were considered the favourites going in due to their more impressive rugby tradition and seasoned players, but it was the USA, fielding a representative team from California RU mostly made up of students and past students, who gained a narrow victory of 8-0. This was in front of a rain-soaked crowd of about 20,000, the 2nd largest crowd of the whole games!

With this, American fly-half Daniel Carroll won his 2nd Olympic gold medal having been in the 1908 winning Wallabies team.

Belgium was chosen to host in 1920 due to how much destruction the country had suffered during WWI, with Antwerp as the host city, and it was the first time doves were released during the opening ceremony.

It was the first time the symbol that is now synonymous with the Olympics was used in public, although it had been designed by Pierre de Coubertin in 1913. The overlapping rings designed to convey friendship throughout the world.

It was also the first games to see the athletes take the Olympic oath.

1924 Paris

The 1924 Paris games saw the 4th and final time that 15-a-side rugby union was played. The USA was invited to defend their title, although they had to fund their own trip. They were joined in the competition by France and Romania.

Although more familiar with American Football, the USA had a relatively experienced team, with 5 members having participated in the previous games in 1920, while the French squad had many experienced Internationals. This was not the case for Romania, who suffered significant losses of 61-3 to France and 37-0 against USA, swiftly removing themselves from the competition (although still earning themselves a Bronze medal).

So France and USA faced one another in another Olympic final, and again the French were favourites to win. However history was to repeat itself, leaving USA as reigning Olympic rugby champions to this day. It was not a straight forward victory though - a string of French injuries, including star player Jaureguy being knocked unconscious within minutes, and a player sent off for violent conduct. The home crowd was hostile due to strained Franco-American relations remaining after WWI, so after the USA won the team had to be escorted off the field by police. Perhaps this fraught game was a factor in rugby not being included in the games again for another 92 years.

Final result: 17-3

"With several more weeks of training, this US team could beat any team in Europe, not barring the best of the British Isles. They play a great game." - Albert Freethy, referee

2016 Rio

The 2016 Olympics saw rugby's return after a 92 year break. The faster paced, shorter game of Rugby 7s replaced the more traditional 15-a-side game that had proved unpopular with Olympic crowds almost a century before.

The Rio games meant Women were able to compete in Olympic rugby competition for the first time. Australia became the first ever female gold medallists in rugby as well as the first gold medallist in Rugby 7s after beating New Zealand 24-17. Canada took home the first bronze medal, beating Great Britain 33-10.

The men's competition saw Fiji make headlines as they claimed their first medal (and made it a gold) after 60 years of participation. The team were dominant throughout the tournament and defeated Great Britain 43 to 7 in the final.