The Men Behind the First Olympic Team | History | Smithsonian
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The B.A.A. team in the stadium in Athens. (Image courtesy of the Boston Athletic Association)

The Men Behind the First Olympic Team

Mocked by their peers and kicked out of Harvard, the pioneering athletes were ahead of their time... and their competition in Athens

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Years later, it was said that the whole idea started as a joke.

It was January 1896, and at the Boston Athletic Association’s annual indoor track meet at Mechanic’s Hall, Arthur Blake—a 23-year-old distance-running star for the BAA—had just won the hotly contested 1,000-yard race. Afterward, stockbroker Arthur Burnham, a prominent member of the well-heeled association, was congratulating him on his performance. Blake laughed and said in jest, “Oh, I’m too good for Boston. I ought to go over and run the Marathon, at Athens, in the Olympic Games.”

Burnham looked at him for a moment, and then spoke in earnest. “Would you really go if you had the chance?”

Would I?” Blake responded emphatically. From that moment—or so high jumper Ellery Clark later claimed in his memoirs—Burnham decided that the nine-year-old BAA should send a team to the Games. The result was that the young men from Boston became, in large part, the de facto U.S. Olympic team: the first ever.

The BAA had been founded in 1887 by an eclectic group of former Civil War officers, Boston Brahmins and local luminaries including the celebrated Irish poet and activist John Boyle O’Reilly. With old Yankee wealth as the foundation and forward-minded thinkers at the helm, the Association had in less than a decade risen to become one of the most powerful sports organizations in America.

By January of 1896, most everyone in U.S. athletic circles had heard about the plan to revive the ancient Greek Olympic competitions, promulgated by an energetic Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The diminutive, 34-year-old baron was no stranger to the States or to Boston. In fact, he had attended a conference of physical educators held in the city in 1889, where he presented some of his ideas; Coubertin believed in the integration of intellectual discipline with athletic activity.

As a historian, Coubertin knew that an even greater precedent lay in the distant past; in the quadrennial Games held in ancient Olympia. An internationalist, as well, Coubertin began to envision bringing the world together through sports and athletics and a celebration of this classic “sound mind, sound body” tradition. He presented his ideas at a “jubilee” of French sports organizations held at the Sorbonne in November of 1892.As historian Richard D. Mandell described it in his 1976 book on the first modern Olympic Games, Coubertin had intended that the last paragraphs of his speech would have the greatest impact. Here, the baron’s passions—physical culture, history, Hellenism, internationalism, British public schools—converged to form the spark of his great, earthshaking idea:

“It is clear that the telegraph, railroads, the telephone, dedicated research congresses and expositions have done more for peace than all the treaties and diplomatic conventions. Indeed, I expect that athleticism will do even more.

Let us export our rowers, our runners and our fencers: that will be the free trade of the future. When the day comes that this is introduced... the progress toward peace will receive a powerful new impulse.

All this leads to what we should consider the second part of our program. I hope you will help us... pursue this new project. What I mean is that, on a basis conforming to modern life, we reestablish a great and magnificent institution, the Olympic Games.”

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