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The United States At Athens, 1896

April 2023
2min read

Nobody paid much attention to America’s first Olympic team until the athletes returned. Then all of a sudden everyone realized what they had accomplished over there in Greece.

There were ten men on the squad. James B. Connolly, the hop, step, and jumper, almost missed the boat when it left New York on March 20 bound for Athens, where the Olympic Games were to be revived in April. The night before, at a farewell party, he had wrenched his back. He needed help getting up the gangplank.

In addition to Connolly and his aching back, there were four athletes from Princeton and five members of the Boston Athletic Association, including the great Tom Burke in the 100 and 400 meters. Connolly, affiliated with the little Suffolk Athletic Club in South Boston, was paying his own way.

During most of the twelve-day trip to Naples, Connolly’s teammates took turns helping him in and out of chairs. Finally, “one sunny magical morning just before we reached the Mediterranean, I woke up with every pain and ache gone.”

In Naples his pocket was picked. When he went to a police station to identify the thief, he almost missed the train out of town. “I never ran faster in my life,” he wrote. “Tom Burke and Tom Barry and Arthur Blake grabbed me and hauled me through the compartment window. I wish I had been timed during that gallop.”

Several days later the team arrived in Athens, checked into the hotel, and looked forward to twelve days of hard training. At four the next morning they were awakened by a brass band playing outside. Then, as Bob Garrett later remembered, “two members of the Olympic committee came in and handed us programs for the Games. … Our eyes almost popped out. That big parade outside was the start of the Olympic ceremonies. We had to be ready to compete in a matter of hours. Somebody back home had read the calendar wrong. … This was the difference between Greek and American calendars in those days.”

An hour later the ten American athletes and their coaches, along with hundreds of other athletes from all corners of the world, marched into the stadium, a gracefully proportioned white-marble structure packed with seventy thousand spectators. After a royal welcome the flame was ignited, and the spectators settled back to watch the great events—the first of which was the hop, step, and jump.

Connolly had trained for the normal hop, skip , and jump, as done in America; the Olympic version substituted a second hop for the skip. He recalled, "I had not jumped the two hops since I was twelve years old; but now I made up my mind that I would try [it]. It demanded more strength and natural spring. …

“What ancestral or other influence it was took possession of me that day, so that I recalled all I had learned as a boy of twelve. … I seemed to soar, and as I landed in the pit a tremendous cheer went up. … By and by, I took my second try. Another roar went up. An Englishman named Perry was leveling off the pit after each jump. After my second try I said to him: ‘They ought to tell how far each man jumps. Then a fellow won’t be breaking his back when there’s no need of it.’

“To that he said: ‘As far as the measurements go, there’s nobody within a yard of you.’ ”

With an effort of forty-five feet—three feet and three inches ahead of his closest rival—James B. Connolly, who died in 1957, won the first first-place medal of the modern Olympics.

Bob Garrett won that day too, even though he had never seen a discus before. He later won the silver championship medal for the shot put (gold wasn’t being used yet). Tom Burke garnered two medals, one for the 100 meters and the other for the 400. Tom Curtis won a silver medal in the hurdles; Bill Hoyt won the pole vault; and Ellery Clarke took both the high and broad jumps. In all, the American team won nine of the twelve track events at the Games.

The Princeton boys were mobbed when they returned home to New Jersey. The same thing happened in Boston when its local heroes came home. Almost overnight, the Games became popular in the United States. And they remain so today, of course, even though our take of the medals has declined somewhat since those first, glorious Games.

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