History of rugby in the Olympics
Rugby sevens was born at the end of the 19th century in Melrose, Scotland. For most of the history of the game, it was viewed as a method for playing the grueling sport in the summer heat, raising money, and providing a less strenuous environment than XVs. With the advent of notable international tournaments, such as the Hong Kong Sevens, the Rugby World Cup Sevens, and the creation of World Rugby’s Sevens World Series, the needle began to tip more toward a serious game. Nevertheless, in a sport that did not permit professional status until 1995, the seven-a-side game was left on the back burner in prestige and, more importantly, funding.
In the early 21st century, realizing that the modern format of the Olympic Games does not lend itself to a return of XVs to the world’s premier display of athleticism, World Rugby and others began the hard charge to bring Sevens to the games. In late 2009, the IOC agreed. Since then, the funding, institutional support, and popularity of sevens has exploded. The Sevens World Series began to see new records in attendance and the level of competition on the pitch has risen to unprecedented heights. Most notably, sustainable parity has set in. Prior to 2009, only eight nations had ever won a Sevens World Series. In the last thirteen tournaments, there have been eight different winners–three (USA, Kenya, and Scotland) winning their first cup titles.
History of Rugby in Olympics: America’s Double Gold
For those unfamiliar with the short history of XVs in the Olympic Games, a brief discussion is in order. Rugby was first included in the 1900 Paris Games. Three teams, Germany, Great Britain, and host France participated. France claimed the gold and the German and British contingents split the silver prize. Notable, the crowds were larger for rugby than any other competition.
After being omitted from the 1904 St. Louis Games, the sport returned in 1908 in London. Ultimately, only two teams competed with a joint Australian-New Zealand side defeating a joint British-Irish team for the gold. The sport would again fall from the bill at the 1912 Stockholm Games and the 1916 games were not held due to the war.
1920 marks the birth of the American legend. In an era, increasingly resembling modern times, the sport of American football was deemed too dangerous. Often overlooked is that the Big Game, played annually between Cal and Stanford since 1896, was a rugby match from 1906 through 1914. Despite football’s return to preeminence after the war, strong pockets of rugby enthusiasts remained on the west coast.
Players, primarily from California universities, formed the American contingent that travelled across the Atlantic to Antwerp. The Americans were the heavy underdog in a competition originally scheduled to include Czechoslovakia, Romania, and 1900 gold medalist France. The Czechoslovakian and Romanian teams withdrew prior to the games, as France had in 1908, leaving a single match between the monumentally favored French and the new world upstarts. Nevertheless, the Americans shocked the world and claimed the gold.
In 1924, the United States returned to defend gold in Paris. This time, Romania joined the USA and France, but provided little competition, losing by a combined margin of 98–3. Before an unruly partisan crowd, the Americans once again toppled the favored French team. Due to the deplorable conduct of the fifty thousand strong French crowd, including incidents of savagely beating American spectators and throwing rocks and bottles at the victorious American team, necessitating a police escort. The incident left a black eye for the sport and was the last time rugby in any form was featured in the games.