The Roar
The Roar

Google “Aussie Olympic Trivia” and you will find this item: “Daniel Carroll won gold in rugby at the 1908 Olympics playing for Australia, and also gold while playing for the United States at the 1920 Summer Olympics. He later coached the gold-medal winning USA Rugby team at the 1924 Olympics.”

This achievement of winning two gold medals at different Olympics, then coaching the side that won another gold medal makes Carroll one of the great Australian Olympians. He joins a golden group led by Shirley de la Hunty (nee Strickland), the brainy, brilliant athlete from Western Australia who won acclaim as the first Australian athlete, male or female, to win a gold medal at successive Olympic Games. In the case of Carroll, his gold medals as a rugby player came in successive Olympics when rugby was played. His involvement as a winning coach in 1924 puts him near to Dawn Fraser’s achievement of winning the 100m freestyle swimming event for women in three successive Olympics, 1956, 1960 and 1964. The International Olympic Committee named Dawn Fraser as its female swimmer of the century for this achievement in 1999.

The eminence and honours, rightly, piled on Shirley de la Hunty and Dawn Fraser provide an appropriate context in which to measure the Olympic exploits of Daniel Carroll, rugby’s greatest Olympian and one of the pre-eminent, if unfortunately almost unknown, figures of the early decades of the Olympic movement.

Daniel Carroll’s first Olympic experience was in 1908 as a member of the successful Wallaby side that defeated Cornwall for the gold medal at the London Olympics. In the eight-try rout of their opponents, Carroll, a fast-as-a-flash winger, or “good finisher” as we would call him these days, scored two tries, both of them runaways.

The gold medal won by the Wallabies was the only gold medal won by an Australasian side at the 1908 Olympics. Because there were New Zealanders in the 1908 Australasian squad (but none in the Wallabies) the official Australian Olympic Committee records do not acknowledge this triumph on its list of gold medals won by Australians or an Australian team.

Harry Gordon pointed out in his magnificent history Australia And The Olympic Games that 1908 was “the first time Australasia competed as a team… So the all-male, shoe-string team arrived in London at assorted times: 12 Australians – four of them already working or travelling in Britain – who either swam, boxed, dived (or, in the case of Reginald ‘Snowy’ Baker, did all three), ran, walked, jumped or shot a rifle, and two of the New Zealand track and field men… The initial 14, who had not had to contend with selection trials, were joined numerically the following October by 15 members of the rugby union Wallabies, who had began their 1908-9 tour of the British Isles. One date on the football itinerary – 26 October 1908 – was allocated to what was called the Olympic rugby tournament, and the players chosen for it became Olympian for a day.”


Major Trevor, in his match report of the Olympic Rugby final for The Daily Telegraph (UK), emphasised the way the Wallabies had risen to the great occasion: “The Australians beat Cornwall, representing the United Kingdom, very badly indeed at the Stadium by 32-3, and the victory was a remarkable one for several reasons. It will be remembered that less than a month ago there was a match played between Australia and Cornwall at Cambourne, and although the Australians also won on that occasion, the beaten side then played, on the whole, a very good game. Yesterday the champion England county was practically at full strength, but from start to finish they were outplayed. The method by which this victory was gained were even more creditable to the winners than the completeness of the victory itself, and it is only fair to the Australians to speak of their play in terms of unqualified praise. The ground was very slippery and very heavy, and as a result of several hours of continuous rain the ball was very greasy. The continued excellence of the play of the Australian backs therefore surprised the spectators agreeably. They gave a display of football which would have done credit to a Welsh international side, at its best. They scored eight tries, and so good was the play leading up to each of them that it would be hard to say which was the best.”

Ernest ‘General’ Booth, a former All Black who became a leading rugby writer after he stopped playing, covered the Olympic final for Sydney’s leading sporting newspaper, The Referee. Booth had trouble, he wrote, getting into the stadium as his badge was not recognised by one of the officials. This difficulty was finally removed and Booth was able to see the historic match. He praised the way the Wallabies “seized and utilised every opportunity.” The Wallabies, he wrote, showed “plenty of vim and went out to win.” Cornwall was outclassed. “Their style of play,” Booth noted, “was slow and the backs were sadly lacking in pace.”

He ended his report on an evocative note: “Coo-ees echoed across the ground through the fog as the Blues’ score totted up.”

“They scored eight tries, and so good was the play leading up to each of them that it would be hard to say which was the best.”

Possibly Cornwall was put off its game by the abnormal setting – the London Olympic complex at Shepherd’s Bush. John Mulford at the ARU Archives researched the ground the Olympic final was played on some time ago. He claims the ground which was “unparalleled” in international rugby: “The match was played on an area alongside the Olympic swimming pool, which measured 110 yards in length, the same length as a rugby field. Along the side of the 110-yard cement swimming pool was placed a long line of netting to catch flying balls and maybe, stray players sent tumbling into touch. The netting almost bordered the touchline. Large mattresses were spread along the rim of the pool to prevent injuries to falling players. Two men with long poles on which were attached nets fished successfully for numerous balls which went over the top of the netting.

“Was this the only time in the history of rugby that we had ‘water ball boys’?”

To risk a dunking or an injury by playing the running game provides evidence of a strong commitment to the clever, ball-in-hand game the 1908-9 Wallabies aspired to and often achieved. It set the template for future national sides in Tests, and now the sevens sides which has competed at the Rio Olympics.

There was no rugby at the 1912 Olympics. When rugby came back on the Olympic competition list again in 1920 at Antwerp, Daniel Carroll won his second gold medal as a player-coach for the successful American team.

Harry Gordon noted in Australia And The Olympic Games that “ironically, the only Australian to carry away a gold medal from the 1920s Olympics was Dan Carroll, the playing coach of the American rugby team and a former winger with the Wallabies.”

Then in 1924, at the Paris Olympics, Carroll coached the successful American rugby team. There is no official recognition for this achievement. Successful coaches, then and now, do not receive Olympic medals with the teams and athletes they have coached. If the film Chariots of Fire is historically accurate, as it probably is, this differentiation between athletes and coaches reflects the official and out-dated thinking within the Olympic movement that coaches are equated with a professional approach to sport that is somehow unacceptable to the Olympic ethos.

However, other premier sports team events – like the English FA Cup final and the Rugby World Cup tournament – now honour coaches with a gold medal along with the winning side. There is the practical difficulty, in an era when individual athletes have a number of coaches, of the IOC having to present numerous gold medals at every medals ceremony. The gold currency would obviously be devalued if this was allowed to happen.

“Was this the only time in the history of rugby that we had ‘water ball boys’?”

At the 1920 Antwerp Games, the USA was represented by a team from California (made up of players from the universities of Stanford, Santa Clara and California) which defeated the hot favourites France 8-0 in the only rugby match of the Games. Their coach was Daniel Carroll, who also played in the side. The British rugby unions refused to send teams as it was out of season for them. Romania and Czechoslavakia offered teams and then withdrew after being thrashed by France in their continental tournament.

Carroll came back to the Olympics in Paris in 1924, this time as the coach of another successful gold medal American side. Romania entered this tournament, but were defeated by France 61-3 and the USA 39-0. In the final the Americans shocked the full-strength France with a 17-3 result. The French crowd at Colombes Stadium took the loss badly, giving the Americans a hostile reception. An American reporter noted: “If the team representing the Stars and Stripes is going to be hissed every time it wins an Olympic title, it would be better for the Americans to return home and concern themselves no longer with international athletics.”

1924 was the last time rugby featured at the Olympics before the game’s restoration in the sevens rugby mode at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The disgraceful behaviour by the French crowd, which was an affront to the Olympic spirit, was the death blow to rugby as an Olympic sport. In four Olympics, there had never been more than three countries competing and only two truly national sides, France and Australia, actually took part. The international aspect of the rugby competition of these three Olympics was slight at best.

This should not detract from Daniel Carroll’s gold medal achievements any more than, say, from Edwin Flack’s two gold medals, Australia’s first ever, in winning the 800m and 1500m at the 1896 Athens Olympics. As the old sports adage has it: “You can only defeat the opposition in front of you.” Jack Pollard, the rugby historian, claims of Carroll that “his record in Olympics Games rugby will never be surpassed.”

Now that rugby is an Olympic sport, after a hiatus of 92 years, this claim is now open to a challenge. My money, though, is on Pollard’s prediction.

This quest for Olympic gold started for Daniel Carroll at St Aloysius’ College in Sydney, where rugby was a passion among the boys and their teachers. Carroll then went on to Sydney University, another hotbed of rugby. He studied dentistry. After strong performances for NSW against Queensland and an Anglo-Welsh side, he was selected for the 1908 touring Wallabies; the youngest player in the team.

On the way back to Australia, the Wallabies travelled across America before taking a ship from San Francisco back to Australia. They played several matches against American college sides, with Carroll being an outstanding player.

Most of the 1908 Wallabies, with the notable exception of the team’s captain Dr Herbert Moran, who stayed in Edinburugh to get his qualifications as a surgeon, defected to the new rugby league code which started in Sydney in 1908. Daniel Carroll was another exception. He stayed with rugby union, even though he was overlooked by the Australian selectors for the three Tests against New Zealand in 1910. He was back in the Wallabies in 1912, having been selected for the Australian side which toured California and defeated an All-American side 12-8. The aura of Olympic gold still surrounded the Australian side, even though Carroll was the only Olympian. The team was dubbed by American newspapers as “the world champions of rugby,” a reference to the 1908 Olympic victory.

Daniel Carroll remained in California, enrolling at Stanford University where he studied for a degree in geology. He played for America in 1913 against the All Blacks in a Test won by New Zealand 51-3. He served as a lieutenant in the American army in the First World War and was wounded in 1918. He recovered sufficiently from his wounds to play for the Australian Army side in the Kings Cup tournament in 1919.


We come to one of the great mysteries, one of several, about the life of Daniel Carroll. Why did he return to the United States at the end of 1919 and not return to Australia?

Harry Gordon refers to Carroll being the financial backer of a Hollywood film in which “Snowy” Baker starred. There is a certain charm in this story, as Baker competed successfully in 29 sports, five of them internationally, with one of the sports being rugby. Baker represented Australia against the touring British rugby side in two Tests in 1904. In 1908 Baker competed for Australia as a boxer. Some members of the touring Wallabies watched this contest, so Carroll may well have watched as Baker out-fought J.W.H.T.Douglas, later a Test cricketer, in a final only to lose as per the referee’s decision. A number of newspaper reports claimed that the referee was Douglas’ father. After this home decision, Baker went to Hollywood, where he starred in silent movies and became a director of the Riviera Country Club at Santa Monica.

Daniel Carroll, like Baker, lived out his life at this time during the 1920s in the USA. Harry Gordon’s claim of a business connection between the two men is a good story. Unfortunately, it is an false story.

There was a Dan Carroll who bankrolled several Hollywood movies of “Snowy” Baker and there are, in fact, a number of references to this “Movie” Dan Carroll in the files of the Sydney Morning Herald. One reference, for instance, suggests that “Movie” Dan Carroll died, aged 63, in 1959 at St Luke’s Hospital, Sydney. This would have made him 12 in 1908! His obituary described him as “a leading entrepreneur.” He was, the obituary noted, “an early producer of motion pictures in Australia, including The Sentimental Bloke, On Our Selection and the Snowy Baker series.”

Clearly, ‘Movie’ Dan Carroll was not ‘Rugby’ Daniel Carroll.

It is only a surmise, but I think the amateur nature of American rugby probably had a great appeal for Daniel Carroll. And that this appeal led him to take up a place at Stanford University. Later he decided to settle in the USA.

Why did he return to the United States at the end of 1919 and not return to Australia?

At a special dinner in London to celebrate the Wallabies’ victory in winning the Olympic gold medal for rugby, Dr Herbert Moran, the captain of the side received a rousing applause when he said he “deeply regretted” that the opposition side in the final was not “thoroughly representative” of the United Kingdom. “When we decided to enter we hoped to conquer or be conquered by the best team in the world,” he insisted. Nevertheless, the Wallabies were honoured by the event “here in the citadel of rugby where amateurism is impregnable.”

Remember that Dr Moran and Daniel Carroll were the two most prominent Wallabies from the 1908 side who did not go over to the rugby league game.

Daniel Carroll was the youngest member of Dr Moran’s Wallabies. He went to the same school as Dr Moran and to the same university. It is not fanciful to claim, therefore, that Dr Moran’s strong views on the necessity of amateurism in rugby influenced Carroll’s thinking on the issue. And rugby in the USA, especially at private universities like Stanford, was amateur in every aspect of its practice and organisation.

This is conjecture, like so much about Daniel Carroll’s life. The ARU Archives do not answer this question. But they do give tantalising glimpses of further matters about Daniel Carroll that will probably never be fully resolved.

There are photographs of his Olympic gold medal from 1908. There is the original card from the President and Council of the NSWRU inviting D.B.Carroll Esq. to a function at the Sydney Town Hall on Friday 31 July 1908, to celebrate the farewell of the Wallabies on their tour of Britain and the United States. There are some newspaper clippings. One of them, with a photograph, highlights his success as a student at St Aloysius’ College, where he was timed to do the 100 yards “in a shade over evens.”

Another clipping from an Irish newspaper published in 1992, written by David Guiney, goes through the familiar details of Carroll’s rugby career. At the end of the article comes the punchline, however. Guiney quotes the research of Dr Bill Mallon, of North Carolina, “the most meticulous of America’s Olympic historians,” who states categorically that Daniel Brendan Carroll was born on 17 February 1892.


Guiney pointed out that Carroll’s birthday is usually stated as 17 November 1888, the date given by the rugby historian Jack Pollard. But Dr Mallon’s “emphatic findings” was based, apparently, on records preserved at Stanford University and US Olympic records.

David Guiney concludes his fascinating article this way: “Which means, if you care to check it out, that Daniel Brendan Carroll was 16 years and 286 days when he won his first cap for Australia against Wales on Saturday, 12 December 1908. That not only makes him the youngest man to be capped for Australia but also the youngest to win an international cap in the long history of rugby.”

Not so fast. The ARU archives have a birth certificate for Carroll that gives 1887, not 1892, as the year of his birth and Flemington, Melbourne, as the place of birth.

If this certificate in the ARU Archives is accurate, as I think it probably is, Daniel Carroll would have been 21 in 1908, young but not the prodigy that Guiney suggests he might have been.

Birth certificates at the time were moveable feasts. My guess is that when Carroll enrolled in Stanford University in 1912 he moved his age forward four years to be in the same age group, or closer to it, of the under-graduates playing in the rugby squad.

“Daniel Brendan Carroll was 16 years and 286 days when he won his first cap for Australia against Wales on Saturday, 12 December 1908”

Another newspaper clipping in the ARU Archives is from the local Stanford paper published on 21 November 1935 with the headline: “Danny Carroll Here.” The article talks about the “old grads coming from far and near to see the California-Stanford Big Game… Danny Carroll of Great Falls pulled in yesterday for the first time in five years.” The article said that Carroll “played four years of Rugby at Stanford and one year of American football at Stanford. He won his letter in Rugby in 1913, 1914 and 1915. He broke his shoulder a week before the big game in 1916 and did not play, so he did not get a letter for that year.”

The article went on to mention that he “played his last game of rugby in 1921, when a pick up side visited British Colombia.” Carroll, therefore, remained a rugby missionary to the last. A successful missionary at that, for British Colombia has become a heartland province of Canadian rugby.

Other documents in the ARU Archives on Daniel Carroll relate to some correspondence conducted by his niece, Patricia Doohan of Five Docks, in Sydney, in January 1998, to the US Army Reserve Personnel Command. She was intent on tracking down the whereabouts of the Distinguished Service Cross won by Carroll during the First World War. The letter noted that Carroll had married Helen Warden from Great Falls, Montana, in 1927. The couple had one son, Daniel, who had died. Helen Warden Carroll died in 1941.

The notes ends with these sad sentences about the remnants from the life of a gifted rugby player who should be remembered and honoured as one of Australia’s greatest Olympians: “We believe D.B.Carroll remarried and lived in San Bernadino. However, the family in Australia had his last known address in New Orleans. Date of death 1956/7 (?)”

When I think about this restless, sometimes golden and now forgotten life of Daniel Carroll the words of Sir Walter Scott have a poignant resonance: “One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.”


Written by Spiro Zavos.

Spiro is a founding writer on The Roar, and long-time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

Design by Elise Boyd

Editing by Patrick Effeney

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