It’s been so long since a gold medal has been awarded in Olympic rugby that the United States was the country to win it.
It was in the 1924 Paris Games that the U.S. team captained by Colby “Babe” Slater upset heavily favored France 17-3 in a match that ended in a crowd riot. American fans were beaten up in the stands and reserve player Gideon Nelson reportedly was knocked unconscious with a walking stick.
The violence was part of why rugby fell out of favor with Olympic officials.
When it returns at the 2016 Rio Games, it will end its 92-year absence by showcasing a seven-a-side format. The U.S. and other nations not known as rugby hotbeds are hoping the faster, condensed version will give them a shot against the sport’s traditional powers and help the game gain a worldwide following.
The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was an avid rugby fan and championed its acceptance as an Olympic sport.
“For all that, (rugby) is truly the reflection of life, a lesson in experimenting in the real world, a first-rate educational tool,” de Coubertin wrote.
With his backing, rugby was included on the program for the second modern Olympiad in Paris in 1900 and also at London in 1908, Antwerp in 1920 and Paris in 1924.
Even though the Americans also had won the gold medal in 1920, they weren’t expected to beat the French in 1924, and when they prevailed in a physical game, the home fans were in a foul mood.
“We were sure it was only a matter of time before they got their hands on us,” team member Norman Cleaveland recalled of the partisan crowd for the book “Rugby in the Olympics.” “They were throwing bottles and rocks and clawing at us through the fence. We had no idea what was going to happen.”
Fullback Charlie Doe saw band members pick up their instruments and begin to play, the music drowned out by boos and catcalls.
“Then we saw the Stars and Stripes being raised and realized they were playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’,” Doe recalled.
“We had completely forgotten about the medal ceremony, which took place in front of tens of thousands of people who wanted to rip us to shreds.”
The U.S. team returned to the Bay Area — many of its members were from Stanford University — and was quickly forgotten as rugby slipped into obscurity in the U.S.
Doe said the Olympics “were not such a big deal” before television.
“Our victory in ’24 made the hockey win against the Soviets look like an everyday occurrence,” he wrote. “If we had that kind of coverage, rugby might be the great American pastime today.”
Besides the riot, rugby fell into disfavor because of its perceived lack of global appeal and, to its greater detriment, that it was a vestige of the British empire.
It took 85 years for rugby to regain Olympic status, with the International Olympic Committee voting on Oct. 9, 2009, to reinstate the sport — in the seven-a-side form — beginning with 12 men’s and women’s teams in 2016.
Rugby exists predominantly as a 15-a-side sport played over two 40-minute halves with technical and specialist skills accentuated in “set pieces” such as lineouts, scrums and in the wider contest for possession. Sevens reduces the personnel as well as the complex techniques, allowing nontraditional rugby countries to be competitive.
Sevens has grown steadily in the past decade, prompted in part by the establishment of the International Rugby Board’s World Sevens Series, a collection of eight tournaments in locations ranging from Las Vegas to Dubai. Tournaments involve 16 to 24 teams and are played at a single stadium over two to three days.
More than 115 countries have sevens rugby tournaments and the sport has an international television audience of more than 550 million, the IRB says. In 2008, the sport was telecast by 33 international broadcasters in 13 languages and reached 223 million homes.
“Sevens is a sporting spectacle,” IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset said. “It always provides action, world-class players and packed stadiums at international locations around the world, making it popular to both broadcasters and rugby fans alike.
“It is rugby in its purest form and, of course, it can be played in any sports stadium and so does not need an expensive purpose-built arena. Rugby sevens also provides the opportunity for smaller nations and those who don’t traditionally feature at the top of medal tables to win a medal.”
Sevens has acquired a strong following in the South Pacific and has become, in countries such as Fiji, the national sport and a key part of the local culture. Almost every village in Fiji supports a sevens team that competes in fiercely contested leagues and tournaments.
When Fiji won the Sevens World Cup in 2005 its government proclaimed a national holiday. The captain of that team, Waisale Serevi, has retired but still is remembered as the greatest sevens player of all time. Samoa also has won the IRB’s world series.
Rugby’s Olympic inclusion means it will attract more players and fans around the world, but the U.S. is among the countries that could benefit the most.
“Rugby being included in the Olympics is huge for the United States on several fronts,” U.S. national coach Al Caravelli said before last weekend’s Wellington Sevens tournament.
“One is because it gives exposure to the sport to the American public. They don’t understand 15s, don’t even care about the World Cup, but once it becomes an Olympic medal it’s game-changing.
“We have the NFL, the Super Bowl. In baseball we call it the World Series, but we’re the only ones who play. Soccer is not entrenched in the country, so the closest thing we have to rallying the country behind something is the Olympics.”
Caravelli said including sevens in the Olympic program “gives rugby legitimacy right away.”
“It attracts a new public, but it also attracts athletes that we haven’t had before,” he said, mentioning Miles Craigwell, who gave up his dream of playing in the NFL to take up rugby.
“Before, if you didn’t make the NFL that was it,” Caravelli said. “Now you can say ’I can be a practice player in the NFL or I can go and become an Olympian.” ’
He believes rugby’s Olympic exposure could transform the sport.
“Only time will tell, but I personally think rugby sevens at the Olympics could be the greatest team sport for anybody to ever see,” he said. “It could be the ice hockey of the Summer Games. The atmosphere of sevens at Rio de Janeiro in 2016, hopefully the American public on NBC will see all the things our sport has to offer right there.”
The IRB World Sevens Series touches down in Vegas on Saturday, exposing the game to more potential Olympians such as Craigwell.
The former Brown linebacker spent time on the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad and is an example of the type of athlete embracing sevens as a path to Olympic gold. Craigwell was in Boston early last year when he made his decision to switch sports.
“I came up from Miami where I’d been training and working out and I was eating in a diner when the national collegiate sevens was on the TV,” he said. “I was just struck by the athleticism, the pace of the game, the athletes out there and I thought ’this is what I want to do.’
“I called up my agent right there and said ’I’m watching rugby on TV, collegiate sevens. Get in touch with whoever you need to so I can play this sport.’ “
Rugby officials hope that the lure of an Olympic medal will prompt a similar epiphany in athletes around the world.
“These are exciting times for rugby,” the IRB’s Lapasset said.