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E.M. Swift
August 02, 2004
Athens put on an odd show at the first modern Games
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August 02, 2004

So Hqw'd Last Time?

Athens put on an odd show at the first modern Games

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The 1896 Athens Olympics were a great experiment, closer in size to a county fair than to the spectacle that will be the focus of the world this summer. Resurrecting the ancient Greek athletic festival had been the dream of a young Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed in the unifying power of sport. In 1894 an athletic congress he organized voted to give Athens the first modern Games (the ancient ones, begun in 776 B.C., had been banned by a Roman emperor in 393 A.D.), but the news received little coverage. Few people had ever heard of the Olympics. Holland refused to send a team because its rigid notion of amateurism would have required each athlete to pay all his own expenses. The mighty New York Athletic Club had no interest in participating, either. But in the end 81 athletes from 13 countries joined the 230 Greek competitors at the Games, which took place April 6-15.

The U.S. team was put together by de Coubertin's friend William Sloane, a Princeton history professor. Sloane recruited four Princeton track and field athletes, then turned to one of his former research assistants, John Graham, coach of the Boston Athletic Association. Graham filled out the team with seven BAA competitors plus a 27-year-old Harvard student, James Connolly. When a Harvard dean refused to give Connolly a leave of absence, he dropped out. He did not darken the gates of Harvard Yard again until 52 years later, when, having become a famous author of sea tales, he returned for his class reunion and was awarded a varsity letter sweater.

Of the 13 U.S. athletes only sprinter Thomas Burke was a national champion. A few were able to pay their own way to Athens, but many needed financial aid. A fund-raiser three days before the team was to depart brought in enough money to buy steamship berths for all but two of the impecunious squad members. Then Professor Sloane and his wife, who'd saved for a year to buy passage to Greece, offered up their tickets. In appreciation Graham, the U.S. coach, sent Sloane a telegram every day to keep him abreast of the team's fortunes.

The U.S. team traveled for 16� days, arriving in Athens the night before the opening ceremonies. The Olympic stadium—the same one that will be used for archery and the finish of the marathon this summer—was built on the ruins of the stadium of Herodes Atticus, which dated back to 330 B.C. The marble arena seated as many as 70,000 people, and tickets were auctioned off in the streets. The surrounding hillsides were covered with spectators as Greece's King George declared, "I hereby proclaim the opening of the first International Olympic Games in Athens."

The U.S. dominated track and field, winning nine of 12 events. Connolly became the first Olympic champion in more than 1,500 years by winning the triple jump. Interestingly, he wasn't awarded a gold medal. De Coubertin had wanted gold, silver and bronze medals to be given to the top three finishers, but he was overruled by Greece's Crown Prince Constantine. Gold coins were commonly used as currency the world over, and Constantine feared that gold medals would make it seem as if the athletes were being paid. So each event winner in 1896 received a silver medal and an olive branch. Second-place finishers got bronze medals and laurel branches. No third-place prize was awarded.

The cinder track was so narrow that it was nicknamed the Cigar. The turns were so tight and the surface so slippery—not enough clay was mixed with the cinders—that the 200-meter distance wasn't raced for fear of falls. Burke won both the 100-and 400-meter races, overcoming the disadvantage of having to run clockwise around the track, which was the norm in Europe at the time. He started with both hands on the cinders in what is now the standard on-your-mark position. It might have been the first time the Europeans saw it.

The Greeks expected to win the discus, a "revival event" from the ancient Games that wasn't contested anywhere else in the world in 1896. But Princetonian Robert Garrett, a shot-putter, had found the dimensions of the ancient Greek discus in a textbook and had a friend fashion a metal replica. He practiced at home, with poor results. Once in Greece, however, he borrowed a real discus, made of wood with a brass core and iron rim, and found it much lighter. He caused a sensation by heaving it 7� inches past the best effort of the Greek champion. Garrett also won the shot put and finished second in both the high jump and the broad jump, becoming the top U.S. medal winner of the Games.

Swimming events were held in the Bay of Zea, on the Saronic Gulf. Alfred Haj�s, a Hungarian who won the 100-meter freestyle, recalled years later that his biggest problem was not beating his opponents but surviving the 12-foot waves and water so cold that when Gardiner Williams of the U.S. dived in for the start, he gasped, "I'm freezing!" and returned to the pier.

The first modern Olympics were friendly and informal. In the 100-kilometer cycling race, France's Leon Flameng stopped and waited midrace while Georgios Kolettis of Greece, the only other competitor, had his bike repaired. Flameng still won by 11 laps. The tennis was won by John Pius Boland, an Irish tourist who heard there was a tournament, bought a racket and competed for Britain.

The most popular event was the marathon, newly created to honor Phidippides, the messenger who, legend has it, ran to Athens from the Battle of Marathon to announce the Greek victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. Twenty-five men entered the race, which began at a bridge outside the village of Marathon. The distance to the finish in the Athens stadium was about 2.2 miles shorter than the 26 miles, 385 yards that a modern marathon measures.

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