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Our First Olympics

June 2024
10min read

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

There 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.

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.

THE JUDGES PRESENTED CONNOLLY WITH A TANGI- ble link to his predecessors. “The olive crown that was awarded the victors,” wrote the New York Herald ’s correspondent, “will be made from material furnished from the same grove from which were taken the leaves and sprigs that formed the crowns of victory more than 15 centuries ago.”

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.

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.”

OF WORLD-CLASS ATHLETES, for that matter. Garrett won four medals at the revival Olympics—a total eclipsed only by the German gymnast Hermann Weingartner’s seven—and added two more at the Paris Games four years later.

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.

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.”

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