By Zane Miller
The Last Hurrah is a series that discusses the final major sports events at sporting venues around the world.
On Saturday, May 17th, 1924, the United States national rugby team and the France national rugby team faced against each other at Stade de Colombes (now Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir) in Paris for the gold medal in rugby union, the final rugby union match to be held at the Olympics as of this writing.
Rugby union has had an interesting history with the Olympic Games, as it made its debut in 1900 in Paris in the second Summer Olympics ever held, with France taking the gold; however it was taken out for the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, likely due to those particular Olympics having much less interest and fanfare, along with the possibility of not having enough athletes to adequately field teams.
Nevertheless, rugby returned in the 1908 Olympics in London, where Australasia, a combined team made up of athletes from both Australia and New Zealand, claimed the gold medal. Australasia would compete once again in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where they would win two more gold medals, both in swimming.
However, rugby did not return in the 1912 Olympics, but it did come back once again in 1920, with the scheduled 1916 Summer Olympics being cancelled due to World War I.
In the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, only two teams participated, with the United States and France facing each other in a one-game playoff for the gold medal. The United States won the lone match to earn the gold in a massive upset over the much more established French team, which might have been the kindling for the disdain of the French fanbase towards the American team going into the 1924 Olympics.
As the two countries met in September of 1923 to set up the rugby union competition in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, both France as well as the United States agreed to return for 1924. However, they would be joined by brand new team that year as well, as Romania also agreed their national rugby team. It was the first time in Romanian history that they had sent a team to compete for any Olympic sport, and they were essentially guaranteed a medal as there were only three teams competing.
Despite the United States winning four years earlier, France was still the massive favorite and was predicted to win easily. This assessment makes sense when you think about it, as France had a clear home field advantage as the United States team had to travel by ship to Paris (airplanes were not yet a common mode of transportation) and Romania collectively hadn’t even heard of rugby until it was introduced in 1913, and had only competed in a grand total of one international competition before heading into the Olympics.
The United States team arrived in Europe after the aforementioned exhausting and treacherous journey across the ocean, but they were not met with a warm welcome from the French immigration officers, who refused the team entry into France for unknown reasons after the team finished passing through England. The team was detained for over 12 hours, however they were eventually granted access into the country.
The Americans had received a negative reputation amongst the local fans, as French newspapers had referred to them as “streetfighters and saloon brawlers” after word got out that the team had initially been banned from entering the country.
The weeks leading up to the actual tournaments did not help quell the tension, as the American team was also barred from practicing at Stade de Colombes, and were instead forced to use a small patch of open land next to their hotel. The team decided to practice at the stadium anyway, and essentially broke in by scaling the fence around the field to complete their practices, further angering the fans in the process.
The tournament, which was a round-robin format typically used in the Olympic Games, with each team playing two games, got underway with France easily handling Romania with a 61-3 victory on May 4th. The United States did the same in the next game of the round robin on May 11th, beating Romania 37-0 as Romania quickly exited the tournament, locking up the bronze medal. This left France and the United States to play in the gold medal match once again.
Stay tuned for Part 2!
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