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The Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) penned these memorable words in his poem, “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift.”
“Yet, malice never was his aim, He lashed the vice, but spared the name.”
In keeping with the belief of castigating the defect, and not lambasting the person who committed the blunder, we report the sentence from a well-known, American urban magazine in its recent article on rugby in the Rio Olympics.
“The last time rugby was an Olympic sport, a ragtag team of ‘street fighters and saloon brawlers’ from the U.S. won the gold medal.”
The magazine writer’s statement about the USA’s 1924 rugby team is both false and defamatory. To refute the denigration of these athletes, we asked Mark Ryan, British sports journalist, and author of the seminal historical book Try For the Gold, which details the personal stories of the USA rugby team’s participation in the 1920 (Antwerp) and 1924 (Paris) Olympics.
Ryan is the acknowledged expert on this rugby subject. He utilized many sources both in the US and France, culminating with an extended stay in California where he interviewed the families of the Olympic players. Here are his comments:
“The US team that won the Olympic rugby title in 1924 were not 'street fighters and saloon brawlers,' a cynical and inaccurate branding used by the French to distract from the fact that they themselves had used low tactics against their guests from America.
Indeed, the US team hadn't even been allowed ashore by the French at first, having crossed the English Channel in heavy seas to compete at the Paris Olympics.
With some suffering from sea sickness, they had to fight their way off their boat and onto dry land. Only this desperate and unavoidable action prompted the inappropriate insult you so readily choose to repeat at the start of your article.
The USA rugby team was in fact comprised of an extremely honorable bunch of men, very disciplined and athletically talented. Babe Slater, the captain, was a veteran of WW1. Rudy Scholz, a key player, was a lawyer.
Most of the players were well educated young men who had been through the Californian college system and would go on to take up important positions in American society.
Several were new to rugby. Only through a great amount of hard work, discipline and determination did they triumph against some of the best rugby experts in the world. They succeeded in the face of fierce provocation.
Before and during the gold medal game, for example, the American team was spat at and insulted.
At the end of the game - a convincing win over France - one player, Ed Turkington was kicked in a very painful place by an opponent while swapping jerseys. The American fans had already been physically attacked and some had been beaten unconscious.
Despite all this, there was no loss of discipline from the American players on the day of the final. They fully deserved their victory and returned to the USA as heroes.
The reason rugby was ‘dumped,’ (and wasn't played again at the Olympics until this year) was in no way due to the American team's conduct. Their discipline was exemplary.
Rugby was ‘dumped' because the French fans had rioted, showing themselves to be unable to take defeat like men. Indeed, the attitude of the French authorities had also been so poor that the entire Olympic movement was left in the balance in 1924 - not just rugby.
There were allegations of cheating by officials overseeing the boxing and fencing tournaments in Paris.
It was felt that, if the Olympics brought out the worst in the hosts and only increased tensions between nations, there might be no point in having Olympics at all.
The Times of London argued that the Olympics should be abolished. Mercifully the world persevered.
One of the reasons we still have the Olympics was because the USA rugby team of 1924 did not let hostilities escalate in the way their Paris hosts would have liked.
So it is particularly ignorant to accuse the American team of being nothing more than street fighters and saloon brawlers. Indeed, if the writer is American, it is also less than patriotic to do so. Americans should be very proud of the 1924 Olympic rugby team - instead of repeating lame insults once hurled at them by people who lacked moral fiber. “
These US players epitomized the apogee of amateur excellence, gentlemen all. From the 1924 squad, seven had also competed in Antwerp four-years earlier. One new player in 1924 was Rhodes Scholar Alan Valentine who later become president of the University of Rochester.
It’s needless to speculate on why the magazine writer committed this mistake. But it’s important to set the record straight, the 1924 rugby Olympians represented this country nobly. We all take pride in their accomplishment.