Rugby Union first featured in the Olympic Games at the second modern Olympiad held in Paris during 1900. Rugby was introduced into the Games as a result of the influence of the modern Olympic movement’s founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. In 1892 he had refereed the first French Rugby Championship final between Racing Club de France and Stade Français and he later officiated at France’s first international match in 1906.
These Olympics were something of a sideshow to the Paris Universal Exposition that was also held in the French capital in 1900. The word Olympic was nowhere to be seen and the Games were referred to as the ‘Paris Championships’ or ‘The Great Exhibition meeting.’ As an example of how the Games played second fiddle to the Exposition, the fencing competition was held as a side attraction in the exhibition’s cutlery area! Interest in the Games was further reduced by the fact that the events were strung out from May until November.
In addition other sporting events were held in connection with the Exposition, which caused a great deal of confusion about which were Olympic contests and which were not. Some athletes did not know they were taking part in the Olympics while others thought they were in the Olympics when they weren’t. Margaret Abbott of the United States of America won a nine-hole golf tournament that she had entered as a lark and died in 1955 not realising that she had won an Olympic title.
Part of the reason for all this confusion and poor organisation was that many French sports officials resented Coubertin’s international outlook and his ‘English’ ideas about sport and education. Coubertin told a friend after the Games ‘It’s a miracle the Olympic movement survived Paris.’
There were three entrants for the Olympic Rugby tournament of 1900, France, Germany and Great Britain. The French side was from the Union des Societies Françaises de Sport Athletiques, an overall sports governing body. Germany was represented by a team from Frankfurt that has been variously described as Eintracht Frankfurt or Frankfurter Fuβball club. A side known as Moseley Wanderers represented Great Britain.
The first match took place on 14th October when France defeated Germany 27-17. The next game was France v. Great Britain on Sunday 28th October and the previous day’s Birmingham Gazette carried the following preview of the match: ‘ENGLAND v FRANCE. ‘Sunday football is neither popular nor frequent here but it is one of the latest diversions that help to make the French Sabbath so much unlike ours. On Sunday an English fifteen will meet the French Rugby Union at the Paris Exhibition Grounds. The following players representing the English Union left London late last night for that purpose: Back H.A. LOVEITT (Coventry). Three-quarter Backs: H.S. NICHOL (Old Edwardians), L. HOOD (Rosslyn Park), C. WITTINDALE (Aston Old Edwardians), R. WITTINDALE (Aston Old Edwardians). Half-Backs J.H.BIRTLES (Moseley), J. CANTION (London Irish). Forwards: J.G. WALLIS (Old Edwardians), C.P. DEYKIN (Moseley), V. SMITH (Old Edwardians), A.J.L. DARBY (Cambridge University), M.L. LOGAN (London Scottish), F.H. WILSON (Crusaders), M.W. TALBOT (Moseley), F.C. BAYLIS (Moseley).’
The match was reported in The Times on Monday 29th as follows: ‘A rugby football match was played today at the Velodrome Municipal at Vincennes between the Moseley Wanderers and a team representing the full strength of France. A crowd of 10,000 persons was present. The French team held the advantage from the first and ultimately gained victory by 27 points to 8. The defeat of the Moseley team, which was a strong one, may be attributed partly to the fatigue of their journey. They only arrived in Paris this morning and have to leave again this evening-Reuters.’
The crowd at the match was probably nearer 6,000 of which it was reckoned only 4,389 actually paid for the privilege. This made the match the most popular event at the 1900 Olympiad. Stating that the team was fatigued was probably something of an understatement because Birtles and Deykin had played for Moseley against Coventry on the previous day while Nichol, Wallis and Smith had turned out for Old Edwardians in a match against Leicester. Deykin had also played for Midland Counties against East Midlands on the 24th. Following their Saturday afternoon games the players must have travelled to the South Coast by train, taken a ferry across the Channel and then another train to Paris. Some schedule in the days before the Channel Tunnel and air travel.
H.A. Loviett was a member of the well-known rugby playing family several of whom turned out for the Coventry club. Nichol was captain of Old Edwardians in 1899-1900 and Wallis served as vice-captain during the following season. J.H. (Henry) Birtles was one of three brothers who played for Moseley, the other two being George and Spencer. Arthur Darby had played for the Barbarians in 1897 and won his only England cap against Ireland in 1899, while he also won three Cambridge Blues in 1896-98. Deykin was the only current county player, turning out for the Midland Counties in the County Championship. The Whittindale brothers were regulars for Aston Old Edwardians and hailed from Kenilworth.
The British side did not play the Germans so France took first place but there is confusion about which country finished second. Some sources state that Germany was awarded second place because they scored nine points more than the British, however, others sources state that Germany and Great Britain shared second.
Those are the facts that are known about the British rugby team at the 1900 Olympic Games but there are many unanswered questions; such as who raised the team and how did a scratch side from the West Midlands come to represent Great Britain? Also what happened to the silver or bronze medal or medals won by the team? Are they still in existence and if so where? That is, or course, if medals were presented as most winners at these games received cups or trophies.
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