By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred six years ago this week, on April 7, 1896, a small wiry athlete mounted a plain wooden platform in a stadium in Athens, Greece. The crowd of 60,000 spectators cheered as officials placed a wreath of olive branches on his head and a band struck up the Star Spangled Banner. James B. Connolly of South Boston had just become the first champion of the first modern Olympic Games.
The first recorded Olympic Games took place at Olympia in the Greek city-state of Elis in 776 BC, but strong evidence exists that the Games had been held regularly for at least 500 years before that date. They were held every four years during a religious festival honoring the Greek god Zeus. By the eighth century BC, the period from which where records survive, athletes came from a dozen or more Greek cities. That number continued to grow until the fifth century BC, when athletes came from 100 cities throughout the Greek empire. With the rise of the Roman Empire, the Games began to decline. The official end came in 393 AD when Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned the Games as part of his campaign to suppress paganism in the Empire.
Although several European nations in the 18th and 19th centuries held athletic festivals called “Olympic Games,” the true revival of the modern Olympic Games began in 1892. That year a young French nobleman named Pierre de Coubertin began a campaign to revive the Games as a major international competition occurring every four years. Two years later he helped form the International Olympic Committee, which immediately began planning for the first Games in Athens in 1896.
James Connolly was born in 1870 in South Boston to Irish immigrant parents John and Ann (O’Donnell) Connolly from Galway. Although the family was poor and Catholic, Connolly managed to get into Harvard, where he excelled in writing and track and field. By 1895 he was the national champion in the triple jump and was determined to participate in the revived Games in Athens. When Harvard refused to grant him a leave of absence from his studies, he quit and spent his life savings on a ticket aboard a freighter to Athens. After a rough voyage in which he had his wallet stolen, Connolly arrived in Athens in time to compete.
King Georgios I of Greece was on hand to officially open the Games on April 6, 1896. A total of 280 athletes from 13 countries competed in 43 events, including track and field, tennis, gymnastics, cycling, wrestling, weightlifting, swimming, fencing, and marksmanship. The games began that very afternoon.
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Track and field events took place in Panathenaic Stadium. Originally constructed in 330 BC, it had been restored for the 1896 Games. By chance, Connolly’s event, the triple jump, was the first to reach a final round. Connolly was the last man to jump. According to one reporter, he shouted, “Here’s one for the honor of County Galway,” just before leaping to glory.
Connolly was by no means the only American standout in the Games. All told Americans won nine of 12 track and field events, including two by another Irish American, Thomas Burke (100-meter and 400-meter dashes). Connolly and Burke were the first of many Irish American track and field Olympic champions in the early years of the modern games. In the 1900 Games in Paris, Irish-born John Flanagan (a U.S. citizen) won the hammer throw. He repeated as champion in the 1904 and 1908 games. Joining Flanagan in the winner’s circle in 1904 was another Irish-born member of the U.S. team, Martin Sheridan, who won gold in the discus throw. James Mitchell, also born in Ireland, won the silver. Sheridan repeated as champion in 1908. That was also the year Irish-born Johnny Hayes won gold in the marathon. In the 1912 games, Patrick McDonald (born County Clare) won gold in the shot put, while Matthew McGrath (Tipperary) took gold in the hammer throw.
Connolly returned to Boston a hero. The city presented him with a gold watch and threw a banquet in his honor at Faneuil Hall. Many years later he remembered the outpouring of joy that attended his procession to the banquet: “. . . with many carriages and a double line of policemen from curb to curb, to clear the way . . . with red and blue and green lights and sky rockets flaring up from in front of drug stores, clothing stores, private homes and barrooms and the band all the while playing ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes!’ ”
Connolly returned to the Olympic Games in 1900 and finished second in the triple jump. By then he’d already begun his career as an adventurer and writer. After returning from Athens in 1896, Connolly fought in the Spanish American War with the Irish 9th Infantry of Massachusetts. His dispatches from the war were published by the Boston Globe, an experience that launched him on a career as a writer. He later traveled extensively and churned out more than two dozen novels (mostly maritime adventures) and several hundred short stories. Connolly’s fame eventually earned him a private audience with Pope Pius X in 1911. The following year he ran unsuccessfully for Congress on the Progressive Party ticket (and again in 1914). He even did a stint in Ireland as commissioner for the American Committee for Relief in Ireland, a job that brought him into contact with the radical Irish nationalists with whom he was sympathetic.
James Brendan Connolly, Olympic champion at age 27, died a man of letters in 1957 at the ripe old age of 88.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
April 4, 1859: Daniel Emmett introduced “I Wish I was in Dixie” in New York City. Two years later, at the outbreak of the Civil War, it became the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy
April 5, 1955: Richard J. Daley wins election as Mayor of Chicago, beginning his extraordinary political career as “Boss” of the Windy City.
April 9, 1916: The German vessel “Aud” sets sail for Ireland loaded with guns and ammunition for the planned Easter Rising.
April 5, 1916: Academy Award winning actor Gregory Peck, born in La Jolla, Calif.
April 6, 1927: Jazz musician Gerry Mulligan born in New York City
April 7, 1873: Baseball player and manager John McGraw born in Truxton, N.Y.
Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.