Article excerpted with permission from The B.A.A. at 125: The Official History of the Boston Athletic Association, 1887-2012, by John Hanc. Copyright © 2013, Sports Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing Inc.
BY 1896, most everyone in American athletic circles had heard about the plan to revive the ancient Greek Olympic competitions. The idea had been promulgated by an energetic Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin who believed in the integration of intellectual discipline with athletic activity. As is often the case with bold new ideas, Coubertin’s plan for the Olympics was met with puzzlement and derision when he proposed it at the Sorbonne in 1892. But he was tireless in promoting his vision, and by January 1896, the first modern Games were taking shape in Athens for that April.
The founders of the Boston Athletic Association, an athletic and social club dating to1887, had a vision for sports aligned with Coubertin’s. The club’s ornate headquarters was next door to the Boston Public Library — a symbolic invocation of the “sound mind, sound body” ideals that no doubt pleased many of the founders, well versed as they were in classical history through their Boston Latin and Harvard educations. Many of the early members’ names ring familiar today, synonymous as they are with wealth, power, and tradition: Endicott, Lodge, Longfellow, Peabody, Revere, Saltonstall, and Weld, to name just a few. The mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts were also on its rolls. In 1890, the association — with 2,000 members and 400 more on a waiting list — staged no fewer than 27 sporting events, from fencing exhibitions and swimming meets to bicycle races and cross-country runs.
As news of the Olympics spread, some of the other powerhouse athletic clubs — most notably the BAA’s archrival from New York — declined to participate. “The American amateur sportsman in general should know that in going to Athens he is taking an expensive journey to a third rate capital where he will be devoured by fleas,” sniffed The New York Times. Yet others saw something else in the Olympics: a chance to be part of something significant, maybe even historic.
Members of the BAA would make up the majority of the 14-man American delegation, including runners Arthur Blake and Tom Burke, high jumper Ellery Clark, hurdler Thomas P. Curtis, pole-vaulter W.H. Hoyt, and brothers John and Sumner Paine in shooting. One feisty and fiercely independent athlete from South Boston, Harvard student James B. Connolly, would compete in the hop, step, and jump (now called the triple jump) for the tiny Suffolk Athletic Club.
Like the BAA itself, the Boston contingent of the American team had strong Harvard connections. To visit Athens, senior Ellery Clark had to ask permission to interrupt his studies for eight weeks in the middle of the semester. When his dean consented, Clark said, “I gave a shout that could have been heard, I believe half way to Boston.”
Connolly’s departure, however, was on a much different note, with the chairman of the Harvard athletic committee implying that he was simply looking for an opportunity to gallivant through Europe.
“[H]ere is what you can do,” the chairman explained. “You resign and on your return, you make reapplication to the college, and I will consider it.”
“I am not resigning and I’m not making application to reenter,” Connolly replied. “I’m through with Harvard right now. Good day!”
With that matter settled, and a last-minute fund-raising effort successfully concluded, according to The Story of the Olympic Games, “the little team started on what was to be a triumphal journey and the beginning of United States ascendancy in the modern Olympic Games.”
AFTER LEAVING NEW YORK by ship on March 20, 1896, the American team arrived in Athens on April 5, the day before the opening of the Games. “Athens that day was surely the liveliest and most colorful city in the world,” observed Connolly, who remembered a raucous dinner in which the teetotaling Boston athletes were forced by the exuberant German delegation to drink toasts to their health.
Tom Curtis, an MIT student, was in the first heat of the first event, a preliminary race for the 100-meter run. Years later, Curtis would remember walking into Olympic stadium. “Row after row of people all dressed in holiday attire lined the seats of the Stadium, while at the end sat the King and Royal Family of Greece, the King of Serbia, two Grand Dukes of Russia, and hundreds of officers of different nationalities,” he wrote in an essay for his alma mater. “Eighty-two thousand people were seated and thirty thousand more, for whom there was no room, were standing tier on tier on a hill that towered above one side of the seats.”Continued...