- Historic Sites
Our First Olympics
A CENTURY AGO a tiny American team arrived in Athens drained from an awful journey and proposing to take on the champions of Europe with—among other handicaps —a discus thrower who had never seen a real discus
July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
Garrett persuaded three schoolmates to accompany him —after agreeing to pay their way. His largess enabled the sprinter Francis Lane; Herbert Jamison, a middle-distance runner; and the pole vaulter Albert Tyler to carry Princeton’s black and orange colors overseas (official Olympic uniforms would not be mandated until 1906).
The Boston Athletic Association sent five representatives to Greece, in no small measure because of a facetious remark uttered by the distance runner Arthur Blake three months earlier. Congratulated on winning a 1,000-yard race, Blake joked, “Oh, I am too good for Boston. I ought to go over and run the Marathon at Athens in the Olympic Games.” A stockbroker named Arthur Burnham overheard him and offered to bankroll a BAA contingent. Blake was joined by Thomas Burke, the defending U.S. champion in the 440-yard run; the hurdler Thomas Curtis; Ellery Clark, a jumper; and the pole vaulter William Welles Hoyt.
Gardner Williams, a swimmer, and two marksmen, the brothers John and Sumner Paine, rounded out an American team that was really nothing more than a glorified pickup squad. After all, no trials had been held to determine the most qualified representatives, and only Burke was a national champion in his event.
Prospects for success in Athens were abysmal and declined from there when the star-crossed competitors began their odyssey on March 20 aboard the tramp steamer Fulda . The ship was ill equipped to carry passengers, but it was cheap. With little room to exercise, the athletes were reckoning on the benefits of two weeks’ worth of workouts in Athens prior to the start of the Olympics.
But when the Fulda docked in Naples, twelve dreary days later, on April 1, they discovered to their horror that the Games were scheduled to begin on April 6, not April 18 as they had supposed; the Greeks observed the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian. Time was running out.
After crossing Italy by train, the team sailed to Patras, a Greek port on the Ionian Sea. The weary Americans disembarked and immediately boarded a train for a ten-hour trip to Athens. They arrived on April 5 utterly dispirited.
An official reception in the capital, while hospitable, served only to deplete the team further. Curtis recalled: “We were met with a procession, with bands blaring before and behind, and were marched on foot for what seemed miles to the Hôtel de Ville. Here speech after speech was made in Greek, presumably very flattering to us, but of course entirely unintelligible. We were given large bumpers of the white-resin wine of Greece and told by our advisors that it would be a gross breach of etiquette if we did not drain these off in response to the various toasts. As soon as this ceremony was over, we were again placed at the head of a procession and marched to our hotel. I could not help feeling that so much marching, combined with several noggins of resinous wine, would tell on us in the contests the following day.”
Fortunately Curtis proved a poor prophet. Only two finals were held on the opening day, and the wrung-out, hung-over Americans won them both.
Connolly gained a landmark victory—and acclaim as the first Olympic champion since the fourth-century athlete Varastades—with a leap of 44 feet 11¾ inches in the triple jump. In a matter of hours he had completed a stunning metamorphosis from unknown to celebrity.
Connolly also received a diploma and a medal—a silver medal. Although Olympic records list gold, silver, and bronze recipients back to 1896, gold medals were not actually given champions until the 1908 London Games (for clarity’s sake, winners have been referred to throughout this article as gold medalists). Runners-up were awarded bronze medals and diplomas.
Connolly’s historic victory in the triple jump notwithstanding, the opening-day highlight was unquestionably Robert Garrett’s performance with the discus. Garrett had never even seen a real discus before his arrival in Athens— the event was still all but unknown in the United States— but “having noticed on the program the throwing of the discus, [he] decided in youthful fashion to have a try at it merely for the sake of competing in an event that belonged to antiquity....”
Unable to locate a genuine discus with which to practice at Princeton, Garrett commissioned a local blacksmith to forge one, patterned on a description he unearthed in the works of the second-century Greek writer Lucian: “A lump of brass, circular and not unlike a small shield.” The finished product weighed twenty pounds. Discouraged by his inability to throw this monster any distance at all, Garrett abandoned his plan to compete in the discus throw.