A golden past: Rugby at the Olympics
London has Olympic Games fever. Household names like Bolt and Phelps have been added to – Wiggins, Rudisha and Taylor are amongst an ever-growing cast of medallists from a field of 204 territories.
When the closing ceremony shifts the focus to Rio 2016, the Rugby family will be on an exciting four-year countdown to Rugby Sevens’ Olympic debut with an action-packed schedule. Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 in Moscow, the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and Rugby World Cup 2015 in England will be key milestones on Rugby’s road to Rio.
Danny Boyle – curator of the acclaimed opening ceremony at London 2012 – briefly doffed a cap to the sport when clips of the home nations’ past exploits flashed across giant screens, but it once played a far greater part in Olympic affections thanks to one remarkable Rugby fan.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man behind the inception of the modern Olympics, travelled to Rugby School to study the game, played regularly in Bois de Boulogne and refereed an 1892 meeting between Stade Français and Racing Club de France – now considered the first French championship final.
“What is admirable in football (Rugby), is the perpetual mix of individualism and discipline, the necessity for each man to think, anticipate, take a decision and at the same time subordinate one’s reasoning, thoughts and decisions to those of the captain,” he wrote in his 1896 essay Notes About Football. “And even the referee’s whistle stopping a player for a ‘fault’ one team mate has made and he hasn’t seen, tests his character and patience. For all that, football is truly the reflection of life, a lesson experimenting in the real world.”
Battle for Olympic glory
For all of the good Baron’s eager work, Rugby did not quite live up to his vision in the early years of the Olympic Games. It made its bow in Paris in 1900, four years after the inaugural modern Games in Athens. In stark contrast to the modern game – where the Rugby World Cup and the IRB’s Sevens World Series have reached out to all corners of the world – the Rugby competition 112 years ago was not globally representative.
Three teams were in the competition – France (an amalgamated Parisian side), Germany (Frankfurt FC) and a Moseley select team, the English representatives. France took gold after beating their rivals 27-17 and 27-8 respectively. The third match was not played, as the men from Moseley had to be getting home on the Sunday.
Eight years later, Rugby was restored to the running order, this time in London. If 1900 had been a little slapdash, the 1908 incarnation was a different beast entirely. New Zealand, who by this point had already undertaken a tour of Europe that remains one of the most famous of all-time, and South Africa refused to take part. Ireland, Wales and Scotland failed to respond to the invitation.
Eventually, a three-team tournament was confirmed, with England, Australia and France taking part. Three soon became two as France failed to raise a team, leaving an Australian side drawn from the touring Wallabies to face Cornwall – England’s county champions. It finished 32-3 to Australia, who lamented at the post-match function that they hadn’t been able to win their medal against the world’s finest players.
Due to the First World War Rugby did not re-appear again until the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. The USA – a team made up of Californian students coached by a former Australian international – began their Olympic dominance by defeating France 8-0 in the only match thanks to a defensive master-class.
In 1924, the Games returned to Paris and Rugby was handed a place in the spotlight on the opening day. France routed Romania 61-3 in the first match and the Eastern European debutants found little solace against the USA, who ran a further eight tries past them in a 39-0 victory to set up a rematch of the 1920 final. The result was the same, but much more emphatic as the Americans ran away with a five-try, 17-3 victory, making them the reigning Olympics champions. Romania, the only other combatants, won their first medal after coming third.
The countdown begins
It is perhaps fitting that Baron de Coubertin, as well as the USA teams from the 1920 and 1924 Olympics and the 1924 Romanian team have all been inducted into the International Rugby Board’s Hall of Fame, the former back in 2007 and the USA and Romanian teams earlier this year.
Rugby’s presence was also felt on the track at the 1924 Games, where Eric Liddell – capped seven times by Scotland on the wing between 1922 and 1923 – won the 400 metres on his way to being immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire.
A year later, Baron de Coubertin stood down as president of the International Olympic Committee, robbing Rugby of its greatest advocate. The IRB renewed its efforts to return Rugby to the Olympics and in 1994 the governing body was confirmed as a Recognised International Federation of the IOC at a ceremony in Cardiff.
All the while, Rugby Sevens was growing as a major participation and spectator sport, with top players from a cast of nations entertaining sell-out crowds in major venues around the world. The IRB renewed its Olympic campaign and Rugby's re-admittance to the Olympics was comprehensively confirmed in 2009 at the 121st IOC Session in Copenhagen when Rugby Sevens was added to the Olympic Programme.
What the Game has on its side now is a history of producing when under the spotlight. The Rugby World Cup has become one of world sport’s hottest tickets and its influence will help future Olympic hopefuls on the path to a possible golden future. The RWC 2011 legacy programme has already benefitted the Pacific Islands – where Fiji and Samoa have eyes on Rio 2016 and a first-ever Olympic medal – delivering equipment to players at all levels of the Game.
London 2012 has also shown that the stars of world Rugby can expect an outstanding welcome at Rugby World Cup 2015 in England, where the baton will be passed to a new generation of Olympic heroes. The countdown to Rio is already underway.