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Colby Slater, Olympic rugby pioneer

Back row forward Colby Slater won two Olympic gold medals with the United States rugby team at Antwerp 1920 and Paris 1924, where the sport made its last appearance at the Games to date.

French foundations

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, was greatly involved in the development of rugby union in France. The sport was first introduced to the Olympic programme at the Paris Games in 1900, where the French claimed the gold medal on home soil. While it was absent in St. Louis (USA) four years later, rugby made a comeback at London 1908, where an “Australasian” team composed of players from Australia and New Zealand defeated Great Britain and Ireland in the final.

Meanwhile, rugby was undergoing a surge in popularity in California (USA), particularly at the University Farm School in Davis (now known as the University of California, Davis), where Colby E. “Babe” Slater studied from 1914 onwards.

An accomplished, imposing athlete, Slater excelled at rugby, but also at basketball, American football and baseball. After graduating in 1917, he joined the US army and served with the Medical Corps in Europe during World War I, evacuating injured soldiers. Upon returning home in 1919, he worked on a ranch in Woodland, California, raising sheep and pigs and planting crops.

Winner takes all in Antwerp

In 1920, the back row forward’s prowess saw him included in the US rugby squad – mostly made up of players based in California – that would compete at the Olympic Games in Antwerp (BEL). Due to the withdrawal of Czechoslovakia and Romania, the USA and France were the only teams left in the competition, and so their clash on 5 September 1920 automatically doubled as a gold medal decider.

Against the odds, the Americans defeated the highly fancied French side by a score of 8-0. Slater and his fellow gold medallists subsequently embarked on a celebratory tour of France, during which they won three of their four matches.

Success as skipper

Four years later, Slater was named captain of a team that also included his brother Norman which set out to defend the Olympic title at Paris 1924. The American team comprised a number of formidable, powerful athletes, who were as skilled on the basketball court and American football field as they were on the rugby pitch.

The reigning champions kicked off the three-team tournament at the Stade Olympique de Colombes by comfortably disposing of Romania 37-0, before facing the host nation in front of 20,000 patriotic fans on 18 May 1924.

The French struggled to deal with the Americans’ highly physical approach, failing to break through their resolute defensive wall and conceding five tries to lose 17-3. Remarkably, the “Eagles” had won two successive Olympic rugby titles.

Pick of the crop

Subsequently, rugby disappeared from the Olympic landscape for almost a century (it will be reintroduced in seven-a-side form in 2016). Slater, meanwhile, got married, had a daughter (born in 1933) and bought some land in Clarksburg, California, where he prospered as a crop farmer for over 30 years. He passed away on 30 January 1965 at the age of 68.



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