Our First Olympics

PrintPrintEmailEmailThere were surely moments during the long journey to Greece when James Connolly was seized with foreboding, convinced this antic venture was doomed to failure. Connolly and a dozen countrymen, who constituted America’s first Olympic team, certainly had cause for misgivings as they sailed toward Athens and the revival of the long-dormant Games in 1896. These thirteen competitors—an unlucky thirteen, it seemed—had received no financial support from the nation they were to represent. The general public regarded the reborn Olympics with an utter lack of interest, and even their fellow athletes didn’t care; only one of the Americans was a national champion in the event he had entered.

Now, it turned out, they were due to arrive in Athens the day before the competition commenced, woefully out of shape after a wearing sixteen-day journey from Hoboken, New Jersey. Failure appeared as inevitable as the next morning’s sunrise.


No one viewed the American team’s plight more bleakly than Connolly, who had dropped out of Harvard to take part in the Games. The fact that he had managed to lose his wallet in Italy seemed emblematic of the whole doleful enterprise.

OUR PIONEER OLYMPIANS were spurred by personal impulse to be the representatives of a nation that didn’t care whether it was represented or not.

SEVEN HUNDRED AMERICANS WILL PARTICIPATE IN THE 1996 centennial Games in Atlanta, a figure that dwarfs the tiny U.S. contingent of 1896. But the contrast between the first modern Olympics and the upcoming Games transcends mere numbers, for no American team has ever encountered as much adversity as our first.

The hardships faced by the pioneers of a century ago were the result of indifference. All the prominent athletic groups in the United States turned their backs on the Olympics and, by extension, on Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron who was the driving force behind the Olympic renaissance. His grand revival barely drew a glance from an America that thought the Games a relic best left buried under the dust of the ages— especially given their checkered history.


The ancient Olympics came to an ignominious end. They had originated as a local festival in 776 B.C. , but as their popularity grew, athletes journeyed to Olympia from the far margins of the known world. Increasingly elaborate prizes fomented increasingly widespread cheating. In time an avalanche of abuses buried the ideals that guided the earliest competitors. A disgusted Emperor Theodosius abolished the Games in A.D. 393.

Coubertin believed that resuscitating the Games in their old grandeur would foster international harmony. He first proposed his idea in 1892 during a lecture at the Sorbonne: “Let us export oarsmen, runners, fencers; there is the free trade of the future. And on the day when it shall take its place among the customs of Europe, the cause of peace will have received a new and powerful support.”

His vision of a multinational gathering came to fruition two years later, when the International Athletic Congress voted to hold the first modern Olympics in Greece, where the Games had been born. But while Olympic fervor burned on the Continent, American sportsmen dismissed the revival as a European creation designed for European athletes. In fact, the prestigious New York Athletic Club, which included many national track and field champions among its membership, snubbed the Games completely.

So the American presence at the first modern Olympics was utterly extemporaneous; our pioneer Olympians were spurred by personal impulse to be the representatives of a nation that didn’t care whether it was represented or not.

James Connolly was a twenty-seven-year-old Harvard undergraduate when he got wind of the Games. He applied for a leave of absence from school to participate only to have a dean deny him out of hand, citing Connolly’s poor academic standing. His only recourse, the dean informed him, was to resign from Harvard and then take his chances on being readmitted later. Connolly was indignant.

“I am not resigning and I am not making application to re-enter,” he told the dean. “But I am going to the Olympic Games, so I am through with Harvard right now.”

Connolly never did return to school and, in fact, still held a grudge years after he had gained renown as a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine and as the author of twenty-five novels. Offered an honorary degree by Harvard, he summarily refused it.

Robert Garrett, a twenty-year-old captain of the Princeton track team and the scion of a wealthy Baltimore banking family, learned of the revival Games from his history professor, who wholeheartedly endorsed Coubertin’s efforts.