|"... one of the most colorful characters in the 116-year history of the modern Games."
James Brendan Connolly never would have become the first champion of the modern Olympic Games if he hadn’t used all of his athletic ability to catch a train in Italy.
Because Connolly’s wallet was stolen in Naples, the local police wanted him to stay and prosecute the thief and “all but pinned my arms behind me to stay,” he later wrote. But Connolly broke loose and ran for the train to Brindisi, which was already pulling out of the station. He made it with a flying leap.
“Three good pals … grabbed me so I wouldn’t fall back overboard and hauled me through the compartment window,” Connolly, who died in 1957 at age 88, recalled in his autobiography, “Sea-Borne, Thirty Years Avoyaging,” published in 1944.
“I did not know it then, but if I had missed that train I would not have reached Athens in time for my event in the games,” he wrote.
And Connolly, who was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame presented by Allstate on July 12 in Chicago, would not have made history. The induction ceremony will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network on Aug. 23.
The 10 members comprising the inaugural Team USA thought they had 12 days to spare when they arrived in Athens on the night of April 5, 1896. However, because of a discrepancy between the Western (Gregorian) calendar and the Greek (Julian) calendar, the Olympic Games began the very next day and Connolly was slated to compete in the triple jump.
The day was cloudy and windy, the runway soft, with Connolly’s heel sinking two inches with each stride. He saw other athletes using two hops and a jump, the ancient Olympic form, instead of the modern hop, step and jump.
“And here is one for the psychologists,” he wrote. “I came to Athens all set to do a hop, step, and jump; yet in that stadium that day, in a contest for an Olympic championship, I shifted at the last moment to a ‘two hops and a jump,’ which I hadn’t jumped since a boy against other boys.”
Connolly didn’t lose a step despite the change in technique.
“The rules forbade the judges telling a competitor how far he jumped,” Connolly wrote, ”but the track coach of the London Athletic Club named Perry, was smoothing the earth in the pit after each jump. After my second try, I said to Perry: ‘They ought to let a (fellow) know how far he jumps,’ His answer: ‘As far as you’re concerned, you can go on back to your dressing room and take your (bath). You have this event in your pocket right now.’ It was looking that way to me too; and I let my second jump ride.”
Connolly had jumped 44 feet, 11 3 /4 inches, or 13.71 meters, beating his nearest competitor by a meter.
British writer G.S. Robertson wrote at the time, “The jumping was the most satisfactory portion of the athletics. The triple jump is not customary in England, but to the unaccustomed eye Mr. Connolly’s performance seemed as good as it could be.”
Connolly was pulling on his trousers, enjoying the cheers, when he heard a band begin to play.
“The eighty thousand spectators in the seats were rising,” he wrote. “I then came alive and stood to attention. The 200-piece band had broken into the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and two Greek bluejackets were hoisting an American ensign to the top of the flagstaff. …The thought next came to me that our National Hymn was for my winning my event. To myself I said: ‘You’re the first Olympic victor in fifteen hundred years.’ A moment later: “The gang back home will be tickled when they hear of it!”
Connolly went on to place second in the high jump and third in the long jump before leaving Athens.
Besides being the first Olympic champion, Connolly was also one of the most colorful characters in the 116-year history of the modern Games. Called "America's best writer of sea stories” by author Joseph Conrad, his own life was a ripping good yarn, too.
Raised in a poor Irish-American family in South Boston, Connolly’s formal education ended after grammar school. He moved to Savannah, Ga., to work with the U.S. Engineer Corps, became a dredge inspector, saved the life of a deck hand and survived a hurricane and tornadoes.
After deciding to attend Harvard University as a 27-year-old freshman, Connolly was enthralled by the revival of the Olympic Games and the prospect of a “journey over far waters.” He said he withdrew from Harvard because the institution refused to grant him a leave of absence, and he paid his own expenses to Athens.
However, Jonathan Shaw, whose 1996 article “The Unexpected Olympians,” appeared in Harvard Magazine, said Connolly may have embellished a little.
Connolly wrote that he went to see the chairman of the athletic committee. When he asked for an eight-week leave of absence, the chairman accused him of going on a junket.
“It was ten years before I again set foot in a Harvard building,” he wrote, “and then it was as guest speaker of the Harvard Union; and the occasion nourished my ego no end.”
Connolly also said that although a small athletic club, the Suffolk Club, entered him in the Games, “I was paying my own expenses. I preferred it that way. I had never in my athletic life had even an entrance fee paid out for me.”
Shaw, though, said Connolly made a “lifelong habit of bending” the truth. There was no record that he spoke to the chairman of the athletic committee, only that he sent a letter that did not mention the Olympic Games.
Connolly was granted an honorable withdrawal and the official record cited the reason as “to visit Europe.”
Shaw also said Connolly’s Catholic parish in South Boston raised most of the money for the trip.
No matter how he got to Athens, Connolly was an Olympic trailblazer.
“I think you could make the argument that as much as anyone else, James B. Connolly embodies the modern Olympic spirit,” said Olympic writer and historian George Hirthler. “He changed his life completely, dropped out of Harvard University and went on an adventure just for the opportunity to participate in the first modern Olympic Games.”
Hirthler noted that the Irish-American athlete was “almost pugnacious in his desire to participate in the Games. Nobody had any idea what it was, but he had the independent spirit. And as destiny touched his life, he became the first modern Olympic medalist.”
Connolly’s winner’s medal — which is silver, since no gold medals were awarded in 1896 — is housed at the library at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
After the 1896 Games, Connolly fought in the Spanish-American War with the Irish 9th Infantry, and his reports were published by The Boston Globe. He then competed in the 1900 Olympic Games, where he was second in the triple jump, an impressive feat considering he and marathoner Dick Grant reportedly were living like “a couple of tramps” in Paris. On the day of his competition, Connolly walked five miles to the track because he didn’t have cab fare. “Atop of that, I had to go without lunch that day,” he wrote.
Eight years later, Connolly covered the first Olympic Games in London as a journalist. By his account, Connolly prevailed upon a timid U.S. official to protest Dorando Pietri’s victory in the marathon after the Italian fell repeatedly and was helped to his feet by officials. “Now, you bum, go out onto that field and tell those redbacks that the American, Johnny Hayes, won that race,” Connolly recounted in his book. Pietri was disqualified, and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.
After his athletic career, Connolly spent much of his life at sea and was an authority on maritime writing. He wrote 25 books — including a fictional account of the 1896 Games called “An Olympic Victor” — and more than 200 short stories, gaining the admiration of English poet T.S. Eliot and U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt.
Known for his salty temperament, he sailed with the Gloucester fishermen and with German fleets in the Baltic. Connolly went to England as a hand on a cattle boat, went whaling in the Arctic, and crossed the Atlantic in a racing yacht. He covered U-boat action during World War I for Collier’s magazine, met Pope Pius X and ran for Congress in 1914 as a member of the Progressive Party.
A statue of Connolly in South Boston’s Joe Moakley Park shows him making a perfect landing in the sand.
He certainly knew how to make his mark on the Olympic Games.
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.