The first installment of the modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 bore little resemblance to the spectacle of the Games today.
There was no official U.S. team, and women were not yet allowed to compete. But 14 men traveled across the Atlantic to become the “founding fathers” of Team USA.
The U.S. contingent mostly hailed from the Boston Athletic Association or Princeton, and most wore their college uniforms rather than the red, white and blue. They traveled by boat and train on a journey that took 17 days, arriving the day before the start of the Games. And once there they found that certain elements of their behavior, such as sprinter Thomas Burke crouching at the starting line or the college cheers they used to encourage one another, were considered unusual by the other competitors and spectators.
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One thing that was similar to today was the amount of success the U.S. athletes had. They won 11 first-place medals, although those weren’t gold. Winners received silver medals, an olive branch and a diploma; second-place finishers got bronze medals, an olive branch and a diploma; and third-place finishers got nothing at all. Still, by modern medal count totals, the Americans’ 20 total medals were second only to host Greece, which won 47.
In honor of U.S. Independence Day, here’s a look at the 14 U.S. athletes who made up the very first modern Olympic Games and paved the way for the superstars of today.
Born in 1872 in Boston, Blake was the distance runner of the American contingent. This whole Olympic experience can possibly be attributed to an offhanded comment he made to a prominent member of the Boston Athletic Association at the club’s indoor meet in January 1896. Blake had just won the 1,000-yard race when he joked to Arthur Burnham that he was too good for Boston and needed to go to Athens to test himself in the Olympic marathon. Afterward Burnham, a stockbroker, decided to assemble a team from BAA, the group that to this day organizes the Boston Marathon. In Athens, Blake competed in the 1,500 and came in second, missing out on first place by less than a second. He was the only member of the U.S. contingent to compete in the marathon but pulled out at 23K and was unable to finish. Blake died in 1944.
Burke was born in 1875 and was 21 years old when he became the first Olympic champion in both the 100- and 400-meter races. The Boston native and law student at Boston University was known as a sprinter, although more at the 400-meter distance than the marquee shorter distance. In Athens, Burke won the 400 with a time of 54.2 seconds. Three days later he won the 100 in 12 seconds, which was actually 0.2 seconds slower than he ran in the heats. After the Games, Burke went on to become a lawyer as well as a coach, a part-time journalist for the Boston Journal and Boston Post, and one of the founders of the Boston Marathon. He died in 1929 at the age of 54.
Clark was 22 years old when he won first place in both the long jump (6.35 meters) and high jump (1.81 meters), and to this day he remains the only athlete to be crowned champion in both events at the same Olympics. The Harvard student earned a reputation as a strong athlete in the all-around, an event in which he competed at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis and won AAU titles in 1897 and 1903. He continued to compete in track and field events as a race walker until the age of 56. Clark also went on to become an author, lawyer, track coach, teacher and Boston city alderman before his death in 1949 at the age of 75. He was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1991.
Connolly was one of 12 children born to Irish immigrants in Boston. Denied a leave of absence from Harvard, Connolly withdrew from school to compete in the Olympics at the age of 27 and nearly lost his ticket to Athens after being robbed in Italy upon the boat’s arrival. He made it in time for the Games, however, and as the winner in the triple jump, which was the first final to be contested on the opening day of competition, Connolly became the first Olympic champion since AD 385. He later came in second in the high jump and third in the long jump. Connolly also competed at the 1900 Games in Paris, although he did not medal, and covered the 1904 Olympics as a journalist. Connolly would continue as an author, become a seasoned sailor and twice ran for Congress, both times unsuccessfully, before his death in 1957 at the age of 88.
Curtis was born in 1873 in San Francisco but lived in the Boston area, having studied electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He competed in the 100-meter in Athens and advanced to the final but withdrew in order to focus on his best event, the 110-meter hurdles. After two competitors withdrew, Curtis had to race only Grantley Goulding of Great Britain in the final. Both men finished in 17.6 seconds, but Olympic officials said that Curtis won by five centimeters, and so he was awarded the top honor. It was his only major championship. Curtis would go on to command the Massachusetts ambulance corps and was a military aide to Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge during World War I. He died in Nahant, Massachusetts, in 1944 at the age of 71.
Born in 1875 in Baltimore to a prominent railroad and financing family, Garrett went on to attend Princeton, where he served as captain of the track team as a junior and senior. His mother, Alice Whitridge Garrett, paid the passage for the four Princeton athletes. Primarily a shot putter and a jumper, Garrett took up discus in preparation for the Olympics. Although awkward in his delivery, given that it was his first time throwing a real discus, Garrett’s third and final throw outdistanced the competition at 29.15 meters. He also won the shot put with a throw of 11.22 meters, tied James Connolly for second in the high jump and finished second in the long jump. Garrett returned to the Olympics in 1900 and finished third in both the shot put and standing long jump. He was the longest surviving member of the original 14 Olympians, passing away in 1961 at the age of 85.
Born in 1875 in Glastonbury, Connecticut, Hoyt was a Harvard student and member of the Boston Athletic Association track team. According to an article in the Hartford Courant, citing a 1996 issue of Harvard magazine, Hoyt was not granted a leave from the school and instead faked illness in order to withdraw and travel to Athens to compete in the pole vault. The decision paid off, as Hoyt was crowned champion with a height of 3.30 meters. He also ran the 110-meter hurdles and qualified for the final, but he did not compete in order to focus on the pole vault. Hoyt died in 1954.
Jamison was born in 1875 in Peoria, Illinois, and was one of the four Princeton members of the Olympic team. A sprinter, Jamison was just 20 at the time of the Games and his best event was the 200-meter. The distance was not yet part of the Olympic schedule in its inaugural year, however, so he competed in the 400-meter and finished second with a time of 55.2 seconds, one second slower than teammate Thomas Burke. Jamison returned to Peoria following the Olympics and died in 1938 at 62.
Another Princeton student, Lane was born in 1874 in Chicago and was a junior when the first Olympics rolled around. Lane was a sprinter who competed in the 100-meter and won his heat with a time of 12.2 seconds. His was actually the first heat of any race at the Olympics, thereby making him the first American to win an Olympic race. He then tied with a Hungarian athlete for third place in the final. Lane went on to medical school, became an ophthalmologist and was the head of his department at Rush Medical College and the Presbyterian and Illinois Central hospitals in Chicago. He died in 1927 at the age of 52.
Brothers John and Sumner Paine, both members of the Boston Athletic Association, were the first set of American siblings to compete in the Olympics. John was the younger of the two, born in 1870, but was the first one to commit to competing in shooting at the Olympics. Both Paines entered in the rapid-fire pistol event but were disqualified for not having the right caliber pistols. Then John went on to win the 25-meter military pistol event. He was scheduled to also compete in the 30-meter free pistol event but withdrew. It is said that he and his brother agreed that whoever won an event first would then drop out of the next event. John Paine, who went to Harvard, would later fight in the Spanish-American War and died in 1951.
The older of the two Paine brothers was born in 1868, two years before John. Sumner was working in Paris when his younger sibling arrived in France and convinced him to join him in Athens for the shooting competition. Like John, Sumner was disqualified from the rapid-fire pistol event but finished in second place, behind his brother, in the 25-meter military pistol competition (442 to 380). With John declining to compete in the 30-meter free pistol event, Sumner took first place with a score of 442. Sumner died of pneumonia in 1904 at the age of 38.
The fourth member of the Princeton contingent, Tyler played baseball and football at the university, but it was pole vault that earned him a medal at the 1896 Olympics. His vault of 3.20 meters was just behind teammate Bill Hoyt’s 3.30 meters. Born in 1872, Tyler graduated the year after the Olympics and went on to become a teacher and football official. He died of pneumonia in 1945 at the age of 73. He was the cousin of fellow 1896 Olympian Francis Lane.
Waldstein was born in 1856 in New York and competed in the Olympics as a shooter, although he did not win a medal. Instead, he became much more well known in academia, studying at Columbia University and earning a PhD at Heidelberg University in Germany before going on to teach classical archaeology at Cambridge. He would also go on to teach in Athens at the American School of Classical Studies and directed a number of excavations, including the tomb of Aristotle. He died in 1927 at the age of 70.
Williams, who was born in 1877 in Massachusetts, was the lone swimmer for the United States. The swimming events were held not in a pristine pool but instead in the ocean, and according to reports he jumped into the water for the 100-meter race and jumped right back out and into the boat because it was too cold. He also competed in the 1,200-meter freestyle but his finish in that event is unknown. He died in 1933.
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.