He Was the 1st Olympic Champion in 1,500 Years… and No One Cared

The Olympic Video games have their origins in historic Greece, however the trendy revival we all know right now — the worldwide competitors the place international locations from everywhere in the world ship delegations to compete — was based within the late nineteenth century. The primary trendy Olympiad was held in Athens in 1896, and featured 280 individuals from 13 international locations competing in 43 occasions. On this historic occasion, the primary individual to win a gold medal in a contemporary Olympic competitors was American athlete James B. Connolly.

So why have you ever by no means heard of him?

Today, Olympic medalists grow to be nationwide heroes. Even when it’s silver or bronze, successful an Olympic medal is a supply of monumental pleasure — the last word glory an athlete can deliver dwelling.

Plainly that wasn’t fairly true again when the Olympic Video games relaunched in 1896. With the Tokyo 2021 Olympics happening this month, the MyHeritage Analysis crew dove into our newspaper collections to analyze why this athlete didn’t get the popularity he deserved for his pioneering function in Olympic historical past.

The rise, fall, and rebirth of the Olympic Video games

The custom of holding a sports activities competition each 4 years at Olympia started someday within the eighth century B.C.E. and continued till the 4th century C.E. Believed to have been based by the half-god Hercules, the video games included plenty of sports activities competitions and came about throughout a competition honoring the Greek god Zeus. The occasion was named after the holy website the place they have been held: Olympia, a spiritual sanctuary devoted to Zeus in southwestern Greece.

After Greece was conquered by the Roman Empire within the 2nd century B.C.E., the standard of the video games declined. For instance, in 67 C.E., Emperor Nero competed in an Olympic chariot race, and though he fell off his chariot through the race, he declared himself the winner. Within the yr 393 B.C.E., after the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity, Emperor Theodosius I issued a ban on all pagan festivals. This successfully outlawed the Olympic video games, and this historic custom relationship again 1,200 years was discontinued.

Quick ahead one other 1,500 years to the top of the nineteenth century. A younger baron from France, Pierre de Coubertin, visited the traditional website of Olympia and was struck with inspiration. Baron Coubertin was a powerful believer within the significance of bodily training, and he thought that maybe the traditional custom of the Olympic video games might be revived as a world athletic competitors held each 4 years, the place athletes from everywhere in the world would come to compete as equals, no matter political affiliations or tensions. He proposed his thought at a gathering of the Union des Sports activities Athletiques in Paris in 1892, and it was authorized 2 years later. He based the Worldwide Olympic Committee and started planning the primary trendy Olympic competitors, to be held in the summertime of 1896.

Large in Boston… in every single place else, not a lot

The primary of the renewed Olympic Video games apparently didn’t make a lot of a splash in the US. All of the articles our Analysis crew discovered in regards to the video games from 1896 have been printed in Boston, Massachusetts, which was well-represented among the many American delegates. 

Within the following article that appeared in the Boston Globe on April 7, 1896, James B. Connolly seems in one of many headings, however there is no such thing as a point out of the truth that he gained the primary gold medal of the trendy Olympics the day earlier than.

Article in the Boston Globe from April 7, 1896. Courtesy of the MyHeritage newspaper collections

Article within the Boston Globe from April 7, 1896. Courtesy of the MyHeritage newspaper collections

“Honor to flag,” reads the headline. “American athletes win at Athens video games… James B. Connolly Takes the Hop, Step and Soar.”

Within the article beneath from the Boston Submit on April 11, athlete Tom Burke — who gained 2 gold medals — is highlighted as an alternative:

Graphic from the Boston Post on April 11, 1896. The name “Tom Burke” is written on the kneeling athlete’s uniform. Courtesy of the MyHeritage newspaper collections

Graphic from the Boston Submit on April 11, 1896. The identify “Tom Burke” is written on the kneeling athlete’s uniform. Courtesy of the MyHeritage newspaper collections

One other athlete, Robert Garrett — who additionally gained 2 gold medals — was highlighted in one other graphic on web page 6 of the identical challenge.

James B. Connolly returns to a modest welcome

When James — identified to family and friends as Jim or Jimmy — returned dwelling, it was to a modest welcome. The next article appeared within the Boston Submit on Could 15:

Clipping from the Boston Post, May 15, 1896

Clipping from the Boston Submit, Could 15, 1896

Connolly Residence: Athenian Winner Arrived in Boston Yesterday,” reads the headline.

“James B. Connolly who gained the working hop, step and bounce at Athens was among the many many individuals who alighted from the practice which pulled into the Park Sq. station yesterday afternoon at 3 o’clock,” the article continues.” There have been no yelling lots of assembled on the station to greet the as soon as holder of the world’s document for a working hop, step and and a bounce, not even his most intimate buddies being there. Connolly had telegraphed he would arrive on this metropolis about 4 o’clock and his buddies made preparations to fulfill him however Jimmy arrived an hour forward.”

Recognition ultimately

It was solely many years later, after Jim Connolly had grow to be an completed writer, that his place in Olympic historical past was publicly acknowledged.

On August 1, 1948, the Boston Submit revealed a characteristic article about Jim:

Article from the Boston Post, August 1, 1948. Courtesy of the MyHeritage newspaper collections

Article from the Boston Submit, August 1, 1948. Courtesy of the MyHeritage newspaper collections


“Connolly Rolls Again the Years: First Olympic Champion, Now Near 80, Brings Again Athens’ Recollections of 1896” learn the title and subtitle. The article begins: “On the eve of the XIVth Olympiad James B. Connolly’s ideas raced again by the years to a chilly summer season’s day in Athens way back when he wore a Grecian wreath of laurel as the primary Olympic champion topped in additional than 1,500 years on this planet’s hectic historical past.”

Later that yr, Jimmy was honored by Colby School in recognition of his literary achievements. The Boston Globe article in regards to the occasion quoted Theodore Roosevelt as writing, “If I have been to select one man for my sons to sample their lives after I’d select Jim Connolly. He’s mentally and bodily vigorous and straight as a whip.”

The Boston Globe ran a characteristic on Jimmy on April 6, 1951:

Article from The Boston Globe, April 6, 1951. Courtesy of the MyHeritage newspaper collections

Article from The Boston Globe, April 6, 1951. Courtesy of the MyHeritage newspaper collections

“Connolly Beat All Comers at Athens 55 Years In the past: When a Future Creator from South Boston Stop Harvard, Journeyed to Greece and Gained the First Olympic Title for U.S.,” learn the title and subtitle. The article goes into element about how Jim wished to compete within the video games and his athletic director at Harvard refused to let him — and he give up Harvard and went anyway.

The next article within the Billings Gazette from Billings, Montana, goes into additional element:

Article in the Billings Gazette, August 20, 1972

Article within the Billings Gazette, August 20, 1972

“No Cheers for the Winner,” reads the headline.

The article continues:

“Gold medal winners on the Olympics Video games routinely grow to be nationwide heroes these days. Large brass bands and cheering songs greet them after they return dwelling to the US. They’re wined and dined and lionized by the tens of millions of People who watch them win the coveted gold medal on the tv display. 

“There was a time when America ignored its Olympic gold medal winners. A lot of the inhabitants didn’t know, or care that the good video games have been being held. This occurred in 1896 when the primary of the trendy Olympic video games have been in Athens, Greece. 

“Take the case of James B. Connolly, the primary American ever to win a gold medal. In his later years, Connolly grew to become a well-known author of sea tales. However in 1896, he was a humble Harvard sophomore when wanted permission from faculty officers to take part within the Olympics. He went first to his observe coach and inquired: ‘Do you suppose Harvard will likely be sending a crew to the Olympics Video games at Athens?’

“His coach responded: ‘Video games at Athens? What video games? What Athens?’

“Undaunted the younger athlete subsequent went to a professor who additionally occurred to be chairman of the college’s athletic committee. He requested permission to signify Harvard on the video games.

“The professor eyed Connolly and declared: ‘You recognize you solely wish to go to Athens on a junket.’ Then he added: ‘Here’s what you are able to do when you really feel that you should go to Athens. You resign from Havard and in your return you can also make software for re-entry to the faculty and I’d think about it.’

“Based on Connolly: To that I mentioned: ‘I’m not resigning and I’m not making software to re-enter. I’m getting by with Harvard proper now!’”

And the remaining, as they are saying, is historical past. Jim paid his personal approach to Athens and have become the primary Olympic gold medalist because the days of the Roman Empire.

The world might not have acknowledged his achievement on the time; actually his athletic director didn’t! However now, because the 2021 video games happen in Tokyo — this time, with greater than 11,000 athletes from 206 nations competing in 339 occasions — we will really respect the significance of his accomplishment.

Uncover the accomplishments of your individual ancestors within the MyHeritage newspaper collections.

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