Golf and rugby turn back clock in re-entering the Olympics
From the US team that won in a bloody battle to a Canadian who walked on his hands, Simon Turnbull discovers that the sports granted entry for 2016 have a rich history
Saturday 10 October 2009
In the end, when it came to the crunch of a vote by the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen yesterday, it was a walkover for Rugby Sevens.
With 81 votes for and nine against, the truncated version of the oval-balled game gained admittance to the Olympic schedule for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro in the fashion of Jonah Lomu trampling all over poor Tony Underwood in that World Cup semi-final of 1995.
As it happened, the former All Black wing of outhouse dimensions was in the Danish capital as part of the International Rugby Board team pressing the case for his sport. "I am joyous and ecstatic," the 34-year-old – soon to attempt a comeback with Marseilles – said. "It's great to see the future of rugby will be on the biggest stage of all."
Golf made it too, by a vote of 63-27, with Padraig Harrington and Michelle Wie in attendance, and Tiger Woods lending his support via video. It would have been rather fitting if Dame Shirley Bassey had been present, too. For the summer Olympics, it's all just a little bit of history repeating. Golf and rugby union have both been in the great five-ringed sporting circus before.
The reigning Olympic rugby champions, anyone? Why, the mighty U.S. of A, of course. They have reigned supreme – or rather, supremely unchallenged – since 18 May 1924. Their band of unlikely lads overwhelmed France 17-3 in the final that day, five tries to one, provoking a riot at Stade Colombes, the Parisian stadium where Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell (a prolific try-scoring wing three-quarter for Scotland) rode their chariots of fire to Olympic track glory.
There was bad political blood between the countries at the time, and the difficulty encountered by the United States team when attempting to enter the country helped to stir the ill feeling that led to a brutal affair. Babe Slater, the farmer who captained the US XV, feared for the lives of his players, who had to be escorted from the pitch under police protection. Several American spectators were beaten unconscious and the playing of the "Star Spangled Banner" was drowned out by jeers at the victory ceremony.
Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron who founded the modern Olympic movement, was among the 40,000 crowd that day and, as president of the International Olympic Committee, was influential in rugby's removal from the Games programme. The sport returned to the fold yesterday with a message of welcome from the current IOC president Jacque Rogge. "Time will show our decision was wise," said the three-time Olympic yachtsman, and former Belgian rugby union international.
Technically speaking, the holder of the Olympic golf title is a colourful Canadian by the name of George Lyon, although sadly he will not be in Rio to defend his crown. He died in 1937.
Lyon triumphed in St Louis in 1904, at the age of 46. He had not picked up a golf club until he was 38 and his swing was so rugged he was described as "a coal hewer". In fact, he had been better accustomed to swinging a bat as a cricketer of note in his homeland. He was also the Canadian record holder in the pole vault.
Lyon caused quite a stir in St Louis, beating Chandler Egan, the 23-year-old US amateur champion, in the final and walking on his hands to collect his prize. The clowning Canadian could have collected another gold four years later but declined it out of respect for the game.
Lyon made the trip to London for the 1908 Games, only to find himself the sole entrant when the British players withdrew because of a clash with long-established domestic fixtures. Lyon was offered the gold medal by default but declined to accept it.
Still, he has his place in Olympic history. So does Constantin Henriquez de Zubiera, who played in the French team who won the first Olympic rugby title in Paris in 1900, beating a Great Britain side represented by Moseley Wanderers 27-8 in the final. He was the first black athlete to compete in the Olympic Games – and also won a silver medal in the tug-of-war.
Sadly for Britain, tug-of-war has been off the Olympic agenda since 1920. They were the last winners of the event in Antwerp that year. They also happen to be the last Olympic cricket champions. A Great Britain team otherwise known as the Devon and Somerset Wanderers beaten a "French" XI comprising workers from the local British Embassy in Paris in 1900. "Cricket is a sport which appears monotonous and without colour to the uninitiated," a French newspaper sniffed disapprovingly at the time.
Rugby and golf have been accepted for the next two Games, but subject to a review after Rio in 2016. There is still a chance for Twenty20 to sneak cricket into the 2020 Olympics.
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