1924 PARIS: Ragtag Rugby Lot Takes Down French
By Kevin Cool
Ask Americans to name their favorite underdog Olympians of all time and many would choose the 1980 hockey team that stunned the heavily favored Soviets en route to a gold medal in Lake Placid. But the victory by a scrappy U.S. rugby team in the Paris Games might have been more extraordinary.
A ragtag group composed primarily of athletes from other sports, the U.S. squad had only six months to prepare and paid its own way to Europe. France, the European champion, was a heavy favorite to win the gold medal.
Nine of the U.S. team members were Stanford students, including co-captain Charles Doe, '20, better known on the Farm as a basketball player, and Norman Cleveland, '23, an All-American halfback in football.
The Americans played four exhibition matches in England and lost all of them. When they arrived in Boulogne, French immigration officials refused them entry, leading to a scrum as the rugby players forced their way off the ship. "It wasn't the best way to conduct international affairs," Cleveland told an interviewer in the 1990s.
It got worse. Denied use of the Olympic stadium for workouts, the Americans marched to the field, scaled the fence and practiced in defiance of authorities. The French press fumed; one newspaper called the U.S. players "streetfighters and saloon brawlers."
France breezed through its early matches while the Americans shocked Romania 39-0 to reach the final game.
On May 18, more than 50,000 fans filled Colombes Stadium, many of them jeering the American side. The French team, which featured one of the greatest rugby players in history, speedy Adolphe Juarraguy, were 20-1 favorites.
The Americans set the tone early in the game when Stanford's William "Lefty" Rodgers, '16, rattled Juarraguy with a ferocious tackle. A moment later, the French star was carried from the field, bloodied by another devastating hit. The United States led 3-0 at halftime.
In the second half, the physical play of the Americans wore down the Frenchmen. Five Stanford players scored tries and Doe kicked the conversions. The final score was 17-3. The stunned Parisian crowd pelted the U.S. players with bottles and rocks as they left the field, surrounded by gendarmes.
Doe later told an interviewer that the rugby victory in 1924 might have inspired a national following if more Americans had known about it. But the Olympics "weren't such a big deal" at the time, he said. By comparison, the hockey team's victory in 1980 "looks like an everyday occurrence."
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