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Historical Vignette: Rugby at the Olympics

2 June 2006

It is well known that Baron Pierre de Coubertin was the founder of the modern Olympic Games. Early in his life he committed himself to the improvement of society through education.

This pursuit led him to make many journeys to England to observe how the great public schools and universities of the time had been able to meld sport with academic teachings to provide a general education for their students.

He was particularly struck by the philosophies of Thomas Arnold the famous headmaster of Rugby School. That school was the setting for Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which Coubertin read when it was released in France in the 1870s.

Coubertin was impressed by English sport in general and as a result introduced rugby to his fellow Parisians. It wasn’t long before he had launched, in 1890, the Schools’ Championship. In 1892 he organised and refereed the first French Championship and then presented the trophy, which is still contested today. In that year Coubertin also assisted with arranging a match in Paris for an English club team. This was the first international trip made by any English rugby team.

De Coubertin was a prime mover in having rugby included on the program for the 1900 Paris Olympics. That first contest only attracted teams from France, Great Britain and Germany, with the French defeating the British to clinch the gold medal before a crowd that was the largest at any event in that strung out sporting celebration.

In 1908 the First Wallabies, on their tour of Britain and North America fitted in a game at the London Olympics. There they defeated the then current English county champions, Cornwall, representing Great Britain, with a score-line of 32-3, and were duly crowned Olympic champions in a two-team contest.

Rugby next appeared in Antwerp in 1920 where the United States team defeated France to take the gold medal. A member of the US team was the Melbourne-born Daniel Carroll, who was the baby of the Australian team in 1908. Hence Carroll became the first and, until 1996, the only person to win Olympic gold medals whilst representing two distinct countries (a number of athletes have won gold medals whilst representing former Communist Bloc countries and then one of the independent nations that sprang from its disintegration).

Carroll was also involved as a coach of the US team that was virtually cobbled together from part-timers in time for the 1924 Paris Olympics. The team was considered a complete outsider against the crack French combination but before a crowd considered one of the best for any sport at those Olympics caused a boilover of monumental proportions by defeating France in the final 17-3.

Rugby disappeared from the Olympic program after 1924 and as result the United States is the current Olympic champion.

Bruce Coe
Olympic Historian