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Today, every rugger in the United States knows or should know the story of the country’s rugby gold medals from the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games. And all should be aware by now that the sport will return again to the Olympics in 2016 when rugby sevens makes its debut in Rio for men and women. (12 countries). But there is an earlier Olympic rugby narrative in 1900 and 1908 that speaks to the root beginnings of the modern games and their renaissance as influenced by Baron Pierre de Courbertin, second President of the International Olympic Committee. Courbertin read the novel Tom Brown’s School Days and visited Rugby School, Oxford, Cambridge.
He was one of many, late 19th century Europeans that hoped to revise the ideals of the ancient Greek Olympics. The Baron encouraged the efforts and financial support of wealthy Greek cousins that helped fund the Athens Olympic of 1896. Since the Greek government was in charge of the first revival of the ancient Games, it did not consider entering rugby union, a sport not played in that country.
When the Olympics returned four-years later to Paris in 1900, Coubertin insisted that rugby union be part of the Games. Three teams participated, a French fifteen, the Moseley Wanderers, representing Great Britain, and the Frankfurt 1880 FC from Germany. Only two games were played with France defeating Germany 27-17, and then Great Britain 27-8 to capture the gold. Four years later in 1904, the Olympics moved to St. Louis with no rugby listed since no one in America – outside of a few east and west coast ex-Pats – played the game.
The Games of 1908 were originally scheduled for Rome but the Mt. Vesuvius volcano erupted and the Olympic Committee relocated the contest to London for the Fourth Olympiad. The host nation was represented by Cornwall RFC, the 1908 English rugby county champion, playing a rematch against the Wallabies from Australia, the only other country to enter a side. The Wallabies making their first tour of the UK, would ultimately register a 25-5-1 record, including an earlier 18-5 win against Cornwall. (Of note: One of the Aussies was Danny Carroll who later would immigrate to the US, play for Stanford, and then, as an American citizen coach and play in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp.) In the rematch, the Wallabies triumphed easily 32-3 for the gold medal