Curtis took the lead at the crack of the pistol and accelerated, crossing the line well ahead of the rest. For the first time in Olympic competition, the American flag was hoisted. “It was a sight to stir the blood,” Ellery Clark later recalled in a memoir. “Forgetting that we were in a country where college and club cheering was unknown, we sprang to our feet, and our shouts rang out lustily among the field.”
BAA . . . rah, rah, rah!
BAA . . . rah, rah, rah!
BAA . . . rah, rah, rah . . .
Cheering in such a way was utterly foreign to European audiences, who sat in stunned silence. A Greek report described them as “absurd shouts,” while a French observer said they were “the cries of overgrown children.” But Clark remembered no such backlash. After a moment of confusion, he said, the crowd embraced the exuberance of the young Americans. “We had, by good fortune, chanced to please the popular taste, and the cheer from that moment until we left Athens was in constant demand.”
The first medal event of the Games was the hop, step, and jump. The crowd gasped when Connolly propelled himself a full meter farther than any of his competitors. The Stars and Stripes were again hoisted, and members of the crew of the USS San Francisco — on shore leave from the Athens-docked cruiser — rose as one. As Connolly recalled it, “the stadium was all a hush and every spectator there was standing. To myself I said, ‘You’re the first Olympic victor in fifteen hundred years.’ ”
There were more victors to come from the BAA.
On day two, Curtis won his heat in the 110-meter hurdles. Then it was Clark’s turn in the broad jump. After fouling twice, Clark recalled thinking, “Five thousand miles, I had come; and was it to end in this?” But he calmed himself — and won. Next, Tom Burke — a track star for Boston University — won the 400 in a time of 54 seconds.
The next two days were devoted primarily to shooting — John and Sumner Paine each won first-place medals — and gymnastics. On the last day, Burke won the finals of the 100 meters, his second victory in the Games and a “double” unimaginable in today’s track world, where 100- and 400-meter runners are distinct specialists. “The easy manner in which [Burke] romped to victory made him the talk of the Games,” recalled one observer.
Finally, it was Curtis’s turn. BAA coach John Graham had held him out of the 100-meter finals in order to keep him fresh for the hurdles. And with good reason: The opponent was Grantley Goulding of Great Britain, who had strutted around Athens all week wearing medals from previous victories and predicting victory once again. Goulding was wrong. When Curtis beat him in the finals by 2 feet, Goulding “stopped neither to linger nor to say farewell, but went from the stadium to the station and took the first train away from Athens.”
On the last day of the Olympics, the attention of the packed stadium, as well as many of the athletes, was on the “bonus” event, the one contrived specifically for the Games: the marathon.
During the Olympic planning, a friend of Coubertin’s, professor Michel Breal, had suggested adding a new event, far longer than anything ever held in the original Olympic Games. Breal, a classicist, named the race after the great ancient battle at Marathon, at the conclusion of which a messenger named Pheidippides had supposedly run 40 kilometers back to Athens with news of its victory.
As the race got underway, the Greeks fervently wanted one of their own countrymen to win the race. Intent on news of the leader, the stadium was silent. Clark — who along with his teammates was waiting and watching as breathlessly as the fans — remembered the electricity of the moment. “A murmur arose in the long line of watchers outside the entrance — a murmur which grew to a shout, and then swelled to a vast roar — ‘Greek! A Greek wins!’ and a moment later, panting, dusty travel-strained, but still running true and strong, Spiridon Louis burst into the stadium, the winner of the race, the hero of the day, and the idol of his people.”
The obscure Louis had left the road littered with more experienced and accomplished runners — including the BAA’s Blake, who dropped out at mile 15. As soon as Louis crossed the finish line, he became the greatest hero of the 1896 Games.
THE BAA’S TEAM RETURNED HOME IN TRIUMPH. Its track and field athletes had won six of the 11 first-place medals accrued overall by the US team, while the Paine brothers added two more in the shooting events. The railroad station was mobbed when its train pulled in. There was a public reception in Faneuil Hall, and Boston’s mayor held an extravagant invitation-only event in the team’s honor at the Hotel Vendome. (“A great dinner with many resounding speeches by important personages,” as Connolly drily put it.)Continued...