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France versus United States at Colombes, during the Olympic final on May 18, 1924. Colby "Babe" Slater is third from left. (UC Davis Library/Archives and Special Collections)

UC Davis’ legacy of Paris Olympic gold

A century later, the story of UC Davis’ first Olympic gold medalist, Colby E. “Babe” Slater, lives on

One hundred years ago this month, at the last Paris Olympic Games, team captain and UC Davis alum Colby E. “Babe” Slater led a relatively inexperienced U.S. rugby team to a gold-medal win against the French for the second time in a row. Disappointed French fans rioted in the stands. The date was May 18, 1924, and it would be the last time rugby was played as an Olympic sport for 92 years.

This summer, the Olympic Games will return to Paris in time for the 100th anniversary of Slater’s gold medal. Rugby will be one of the first events of the 2024 Olympics, starting two days before the opening ceremony.

Two gold medals, side by side. The one on the left is imprinted with an illustration of a rugby match. The one on the right is engraved with the words "Olympic Games, Paris 1924, Colby E. Slater, Captain"

The 1924 medal was not Slater’s first: He had also played on the gold-medal winning American team four years earlier, in 1920. The French had been overwhelmingly favored to win then, too, after dominating the European Championships earlier that year. It was a huge upset, as many of the American players were novices; the game of rugby had largely fallen out of favor in the U.S. as American football grew in popularity in the early 1900s. Slater was one of the team’s experienced recruits, having played rugby in his youth at Berkeley High School.

As a veteran of the 1920 Games, Slater was elected captain of the 1924 team by his teammates.

United States Olympic Rugby Team Aboard Ship, 1924.
(UC Davis Library/Archives and Special Collections)

From the moment they arrived in France, the Americans were harassed and insulted. Despite the cool welcome, the team focused on the field. After beating Romania, the team found themselves once again facing the French in the Olympic final. With American football-style tackling and enormous athleticism, the U.S. proceeded to devastate the French team for a second time. Leading 3-0 after the first half, the Americans steamrolled the French defense to win 17-3.

“You stand on the shoulders of those that came before,” said Bob Watkins, past president of USA Rugby, as rugby was reinstated as an Olympic sport in 2016. “Babe and his team set the standards of the game.”

In the exhibit:

The exhibit in the lobby of Shields Library will include photos of the 1924 U.S. rugby team—both on the field and aboard ship on their way to Paris—as well as a letter Slater sent home from the 1924 Games. On display through August 16, 2024.

A century later, their historic win still stands the test of time. The United States remains one of only two countries to have won men’s rugby gold twice (the other is Fiji, with wins in 2016 and 2020). As the Games return to Paris, Team USA has qualified in both men’s and women’s rugby. The men’s competition is scheduled to start on July 24, with the women following on July 29.

And UC Davis can remain proud of its first gold medalist — Babe Slater, class of 1917 — whose legacy lives on in a collection of Olympic memorabilia donated to the library’s Archives and Special Collections by his late daughter Marilyn McCapes ’55 and her husband Richard “Dick” McCapes ’56, D.V.M. ’58. An exhibit of materials from the collection will be on display in the lobby of Shields Library from May 15 through August 16. Can’t make it to campus? Visit the library’s online exhibit to learn more about Slater and his team’s historic wins at the 1920 and 1924 Games.


Archives and Special Collections Campus and Local History


Colby E. "Babe" Slater Olympics