Our First Olympics

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Not all the U.S. victories came in track. The Paine brothers had traveled to Athens independently of the American team and thus been spared the claustrophobic miseries of the Fulda . Sumner was working at a Paris art gallery when John passed through en route to Athens and persuaded his brother to accompany him. Sumner did more than tag along; he entered the free-pistol event on a whim and won. He also finished second in the military-revolver competition—to John.

Entering an Olympic event, as Sumner Paine demonstrated, was a simple proposition in 1896: Just show up. An Oxford student named John Boland, for instance, traveled to the Olympics as a spectator, then impulsively entered the tennis competition and wound up winning gold medals in the singles and doubles competitions.

Conversely, one American athlete underwent a transformation from competitor to spectator in Greece—quite unintentionally. Williams, a champion swimmer accustomed to the tepid water of indoor pools, was not prepared for the 100-meter freestyle event, held in the frigid Bay of Zea. Curtis described his teammate’s all-too-brief performance: ”... as he poised with the others on the edge of the float, waiting for the gun, his spirit thrilled with patriotism and determination. At the crack of the pistol, the contestants dived head first into the water. In a split second his head reappeared. ‘Jesu Christo! I’m freezing!’ he cried. With that shriek of astonished frenzy he lashed back to the float. For him the Olympics were over.”

 

The fifty-five-degree water temperatures fazed even the hardiest of participants. “The icy water almost cut into our stomachs,” said Alfréd Hajós of Hungary, the champion, who later entered—and won—the 1,500-meter freestyle, having this time taken the precaution of smearing a layer of grease over his body as insulation.

Swimming, as it turned out, was the only sport U.S. athletes entered but did not win. Indeed, the ad hoc team captured more gold medals than any other nation in the showcase sport of track and field; it won nine of the twelve events and demoralized several Greek champions. Overall, the United States claimed eleven gold medals to outstrip more established European rivals, such as Greece (ten), Germany (seven), France (five), and Great Britain (three).

ADMITTEDLY, THE QUALITY OF THE COMPETI- tion was watered down; a multitude of elite athletes—not just U.S. champions—spurned Coubertin’s revival, which accounts for the mediocre winning times and distances. In fact, not a single world record fell in Athens. Casper Whitney of Harper’s declared Spiridon Louis’s climactic victory in the marathon “the only remarkable performance at the Games.”

Maybe so (although Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos probably wouldn’t have agreed), but that shouldn’t diminish the achievements of America’s first Olympians. These intrepid pioneers who weathered adversity en route to Greece and surpassed every expectation once they got there could celebrate not only victories but a pre-eminent role in a momentous event—the rebirth of the Olympic Games.

“Nothing could equal this first revival,” Clark wrote afterward. “The flavor of the Athenian soil—the feeling of helping to bridge the gap between the old and the new—the indefinable poetic charm of knowing one’s self thus linked with the past, a successor to the great heroic figures of olden times. There is but one first time in everything, and that first time was gloriously, and in a manner ever to be remembered, the privilege of the American team of 1896.”