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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
ENTERING AN OLYMPIC EVENT, as Sumner Paine demonstrated by joining (and winning) one on a whim, was a simple proposition in 1896: Just show up.
He reconsidered only after making a fortuitous discovery in Athens. While strolling to the Panathenaic Stadium, Garrett happened upon a discarded discus, picked it up, and was astonished to find that it weighed less than five pounds. After several experimental throws, he decided to enter the event after all.
It seemed a feckless choice. He was up against Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos, the reigning Greek champion, the prohibitive favorite whose countrymen called him a “discus demigod.”
“Garrett entered the arena unknown and unheralded,” said the Herald . “His hair was not as dark or curly as his antagonist’s, nor his nose as straight. He was scantily clad and looked hungry. The Athenians gazed with pity.”
Soon they were gazing with wonder. “We all held our breath as he carefully prepared for the last throw,” recalled Albert Tyler, Garrett’s Princeton classmate. “By this time he had caught the knack . . . and had complete confidence in himself. He put all his energy into the last cast, and as the discus flew through the air the vast concourse of people were silent as if the structure were empty. When it struck, there was a tremendous burst of applause from all sides.” The spindly American had spun the discus 7½ inches beyond Paraskevopoulos’s best toss to snatch the gold medal from his adversary. Although the distance was modest by modern standards—95 feet 7½ inches (the existing Olympic record is 225 feet 9 inches)—it was a “throw considered something phenomenal,” the Herald reported.
Garrett humbled another Greek star the next day. He heaved the shot put 36 feet 9¾ inches to dethrone Miltiades Gouskos before an estimated hundred thousand spectators. “Even Garrett was hailed with enthusiasm when he defeated Gouskos,” wrote the Herald reporter, “although the Greeks were surprised and disappointed by the downfall of their champion.”
Garrett’s victories doubtless surprised those back home too. “Captain Robert Garrett was up to a year ago little known as an athlete, even at Princeton,” noted the New York Herald . “In his freshman year young Garrett showed some ability in the weights and jumps and was taken on the track team largely because of his promise to make an athlete with training. George Goldie, the trainer, took him in hand, trained him, especially in putting in the shot, and has now succeeded in putting him very close to the first rank of college athletes.”
Thomas Burke joined Garrett in the winner’s circle on the second day, having coasted to victory in the 400-meter run. Then Ellery Clark attempted the long jump.
Like Connolly, Clark had requested a leave of absence from Harvard to participate in the Games; unlike Connolly, he received permission, because of his superior grades. But after fouling on his first two jumps, Clark lamented ever having petitioned his dean for time off. “I was little short of agony,” he wrote later. “I shall never forget my feelings as I stood at the end of the path for my third—and last— try. Five thousand miles, I reflected, I had come; and was it to end in this? Three fouls and then five thousand miles back again, with that for my memory of the Games.”
He gathered himself, ran, leaped—and touched the ground 20 feet 10 inches later to claim the championship. He and his Boston Athletic Association teammates burst forth with their distinctive victory cheer, “B-A-A, rah, rah, rah.” While most of the startled Greeks considered this outburst “barbaric,” some spectators found the display of enthusiasm refreshing; King George, a frequent visitor to the stadium, asked the BAA members to repeat their cheer on several occasions. Even discounting royal requests, the Bostonians’ shouts were heard regularly in Athens: Of the twelve track and field events, BAA athletes won half.
After posting victories on the second day, Clark and Burke returned to claim additional honors. Clark followed his gold-medal performance in the long jump with a winning leap of 5 feet 11¼ inches in the high jump. Burke, fresh off his 400-meter success, captured the 100-meter championship in 12.0 seconds, aided by a “crouch” start then foreign to the Europeans. Curtis collected a gold medal with a 17.6-second effort in the 110-meter hurdles, and Hoyt soared 10 feet 10 inches to win the pole vault.