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

The B.A.A. team in the stadium in Athens. (Image courtesy of the Boston Athletic Association)

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“That was it!” wrote Mandell. “This was Coubertin’s first public proposal for the ultimate step in the internationalization of sport.” As is often the case with bold, new ideas, it was met at first with puzzlement and derision. But Coubertin was tireless in promoting his vision, and four years later, by the time Arthurs Blake and Burnham had their fateful interchange on the track, the first Modern Games were taking shape, and would be held in Athens in April.

There was no official U.S. Olympic team in 1896. But there was a BAA team that would make up the majority of the American delegation. Interestingly, some of the other powerhouses—most notably the BAA’s archrival from New York—declined to participate. The New York Athletic Club had just defeated the London AC in an epic track meet in New York the previous fall. Beating the Brits in front of thousands of fans was big—who cared about some silly, shoestring-budget event in far-off Athens? That wasn’t a minority opinion, either. “The American amateur sportsman in general should know that in going to Athens he is taking an expensive journey to a third rate capital where he will be devoured by fleas,” sniffed the New York Times.

Yet, some people—like Blake, like Ellery Clark, like Burnham—saw something else; a chance to be part of something significant, maybe even historic. The association supported the idea, and an all-star team from the BAA was selected:

Arthur Blake, middle- and long-distance runner
Tom Burke, sprinter and middle-distance runner
Ellery Clark, high jumper
Thomas P. Curtis, hurdler
W. H. Hoyt, pole vault

Accompanying the team would be John Graham, the coach of the BAA track team. Born in Liverpool in 1862 and a prominent sprinter in England, he emigrated to the U.S. while still a teenager. He was hired as an assistant by the pioneering physical educator Dr. Dudley Sargent at Harvard; the same Dudley Sargent who would later create and furnish both Harvard’s Hemenway Gymnasium and the state-of-the-art training facilities at the B.A.A’s opulent clubhouse, located on Boylston Street. Graham worked at Harvard for three years before going on to become the trainer (coach) at Brown University and Princeton (he would return to Harvard as track coach in the early 1900s).

Having served under Sargent, Graham was steeped in the most innovative ideas about training and exercise at the time.

The other members of the BAA who decided to compete in 1896 were not track athletes: John Paine and his brother Sumner were club members, along with their father, Charles Jackson Paine, a true BAA Brahmin. The elder Paine had been an oarsman for Harvard in the 1850s, and served as an officer in the 22nd Massachusetts in the Civil War, during which time he commanded a unit of African-American soldiers.

When he heard about the other athletes heading to Athens, his son John—a crack pistol shot—decided to go and compete in the shooting events that were also on the program for the Modern Games. He apparently traveled separately from Burke, Blake, Clark and the others, because he first went to Paris, where Sumner was working for a gunsmith, and persuaded his brother to accompany him to Athens.

Most of the rest of the 14-man American team that competed in 1896 were made up of young men from Princeton—where Prof. William Sloane, a friend of Coubertin’s, had championed the idea of the Olympic revival in the U.S.—plus one feisty and fiercely independent athlete from South Boston, James B. Connolly, who competed proudly in the hop, step and jump (the event now known as the triple jump) for the tiny Suffolk Athletic Club.

Like the BAA itself, the Boston contingent of the American team had strong Harvard connections. Clark was still a senior at the university, where he was a star all-around track athlete. He had to ask permission from his dean to interrupt his studies for eight weeks in the middle of the semester in order to travel to Athens. His dean took it under advisement, and when he gave his permission in writing, Clark said, “I gave a shout that could have been heard, I believe half way to Boston.”


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