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Accidental Olympians

With the Games postponed, today's top athletes can't get even a sniff of gold. But there was a day when you could pick up a discus for the first time and medal almost immediately. Such was the randomness of the first modern Games, which kicked off 124 years ago today

On the evening of May 29, 1901, Sumner Paine entered his Chestnut Street apartment in Boston’s tony Beacon Hill neighborhood and found, to his considerable consternation, that his wife, Salome, was not alone. She was in her bedroom in the company of Peter F. Damm, a musician ostensibly on the premises to give a violin lesson to seven-year-old Elsie, who was asleep in the next room.

Newspapers later noted that Damm was “without a coat, waistcoat and collar” (though subsequent reports generally mentioned just the absence of his coat, presumably for decorum’s sake). Damm would explain his presence in the bedroom and his lack of gentlemanly attire by saying he was looking at an opera Mrs. Paine had written and, because of an open grate, the room had become unbearably stuffy.

Whatever story he told in the moment didn’t fly. Paine, enraged, squeezed off four shots from a .32 caliber revolver as Damm hightailed it down Walnut Street and across the Common, leaving his coat and hat behind. This being 1901, though, a hatless man outdoors raised suspicion. As one paper noted, the “spectacle of the peculiarly garbed runner speeding it across the turf caused a policeman to halt Damm for an interview.” Damm (whose head narrowly avoided Paine’s bullets) did his best to explain himself. Paine was arrested and charged with assault.


Two months later, a grand jury refused to indict, based on one simple consideration: Had Paine truly meant to do harm, Damm would have been dead, for Paine was a noted marksman—as evidenced by the two shooting medals he’d been awarded at the first modern Olympic Games, five years earlier in Athens.

L’affaire du Paine thus became the first true scandal in Olympic history. Though as the story played out in the press, Paine’s social standing—his father, a Civil War general, had defended the America’s Cup with three yachts—was remarked upon more often than his status as an Olympic champion.

Unlike today’s athletes, who train years with single-minded determination for the chance to represent their countries—and who now find their careers, not to mention their lives, turned upside down by the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics—the men (and they were all men) who competed at the 1896 Games treated the world competition as more of a diversion than the culmination of any quest. In some cases, such as Paine’s, they were accidental Olympians.

In the spring of 1896, Paine had been living in Paris when one day he returned from lunch to find his younger brother, John, sitting in his office. As Sumner later recalled in Shooting and Fishing magazine:

I had not the slightest idea that he was on this side of the pond. “When does the next train start for Athens?” said he.

“I don’t know,” said I.

“Well,’” said he, “find out, and get your revolvers and we will go there, for the Boston Athletic Association (of which we are both members) has sent a team over, and as there are two revolver matches we may be able to help out the Americans.”

Before departing, the brothers, unaware of the parameters of the competition, erred on the side of caution and assembled a veritable arsenal, including two Colt army revolvers, two Smith & Wesson Russian model revolvers, a Stevens .22, a Wurfflein and 3,500 rounds of ammo.

Similarly, the tennis competition was composed mostly of Greeks of varying skill, and to fill out the field athletes from other sports were recruited at the last minute, including a Hungarian weightlifter and an English hammer thrower.

That tournament ended up being dominated by John Pius Boland, an Irish law student at Oxford who happened to be in Athens as a spectator, having traveled to Greece with a friend. On the evening of Monday, April 6‚ the first day of the Games, Boland was seated at dinner opposite a Greek tennis player named Dionysios Kasdaglis, who was lamenting the lack of entrants in the event, which was to begin two days later. Kasdaglis suggested that Boland play, and Boland jumped at the invitation. He registered on Tuesday, then spent Wednesday morning running all over Athens in search of gear. He found a racket at a bazaar. An Austrian tailor made him a pair of flannel pants, while the butler of the British Ambassador tracked down an off-the-rack pair of lighter tennis trousers. Boland found everything but the proper footwear, so he played in leather-soled shoes with small heels.

It wasn’t a problem. He breezed through to the singles finals, where he met his old dinner acquaintance. Boland and Kasdaglis faced off, too, in the doubles finals, the Greek paired with a countryman and Boland with a German named Friedrich Traun, who also ran in the 800 meters. (Early rules allowed cross-country pairings.) Boland came out victorious in both matches.

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“It was very bad luck for Kasdaglis losing both, as it was he who had induced me to go in,” Boland later wrote in his diary. “But I could not well scratch to him, as the game was of an international character.”

The opening ceremony in Athens, 1896.

The opening ceremony in Athens, 1896.

* * *

Staging games of “an international character” was the dream of Charles Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. He had been born into a well-to-do Parisian family in 1863. One historian, Richard D. Mandell, described Coubertin’s father, Charle Louis, as “one of the handsomest men of his age” and noted that Pierre’s three siblings inherited their dad’s looks and grace. Pierre, on the other hand, was described as “a slightly runted, hyperactive mesomorph” with an off-center nose and a droopy eyelid.

Pierre stood out from his family in more than just appearance. “He rode horses hard and fraternized with the peasants,” Mandell noted, and he wasn’t nearly as devout as the rest of the Coubertins. Pierre’s great uncle had been a Catholic priest, but he’d followed a man of the cloth known for progressive, liberal ideals, and the Coubertins went to extremes in defying this black sheep, burning all portraits of him and fasting each year on his birthday. Pierre, meanwhile, considered the man a hero and adorned his grave with flowers, creating a serious rift with his mother.

Nonetheless, Coubertin still had access to his family’s significant fortune, and with it the luxury of pursuing a career as a professional intellectual. The topic that captivated him most: the intersection of learning and athletics. He read the works of Hippolyte Taine and studiously devoured the novel Tom Brown’s School Days, coming away with an overly romanticized vision of the importance of athletics at English secondary schools. He would go on to write of how sports could “be used to strengthen peace or prepare for war,” which was significant, given that as Coubertin came of age France was still reeling from the humiliation of its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. A more robust athletic curriculum, he believed, would lead to a heartier populace—and a more prosperous France.

And so Coubertin began traveling, by turns observing and proselytizing. He became something of a professional guest; sportswriter Frank Deford wrote jokingly that Coubertin traveled with a knife and fork. He made several trips to England and in 1889 came to the U.S., where he met Teddy Roosevelt. In 1892 he hatched the idea of reviving the Olympic Games, which had last been held in 393 A.C.E., before the Christian emperor Theodosius effectively abolished them in banning paga worship.

Coubertin wasn’t the first person to attempt resuscitating the ancient competition. In 1859 an Athenian grain merchant named Evangelios Zappas put on a one-day competition that included a wrestling tournament whose winner took home a cow and a javelin competition in which spears were thrown at a steer’s head.

Coubertin, though, imagined something grander, and in July 1894, at a conference at the Sorbonne, he formally presented his vision for a modern Games. He invited representatives from all over the (admittedly small) athletics universe for a program that included several speeches and, perhaps more importantly, a much-anticipated musical production. One year earlier, in Delphi, the French Archaeological School of Athens had discovered a set of marble engravings of an ode to the god Apollo, as well as some markings that were determined to be musical notations. A choral accompaniment was written by famed French composer Gabriel Fuaré, and the prospect of the work’s performance played a big part in filling the 2,000 seats for Coubertin’s presentation. The Times of London noted, “It may be admitted that a large number of those present came all the more readily on account of the [performance] rather than because they were stirred by any pressing sense of the necessity of reorganizing the games of Olympia.”

Prone to overly florid prose, Coubertin would later write that after the performance “Hellenism thus infiltrated the vast venue.” And he wasn’t wrong. The Times would go on to conclude: “The plaintive beauty of the chords of the Greek ‘Hymn’ . . . served no doubt as the most constraining of all arguments in favor of the idea on which this Congress is engaged.”

Coubertin ended the eight-day conference with a toast: “I raise my glass to the Olympic idea, which, like a ray of the all-powerful sun, has pierced the mists of the ages to illuminate the threshold of the twentieth century with joy and hope.” In other words: Games on.

An early event in Greece: the 100 meters, won by a Bostonian, Thomas Burke.

An early event in Greece: the 100 meters, won by a Bostonian, Thomas Burke.

* * *

A total of 14 countries were represented at the Athens Games, by 241 competitors, and the majority of those athletes were Greek. Fourteen were Americans—four from Princeton and the other 10 from Boston.

That group’s departure for Greece was hardly big news; in the States, the attitude toward the Olympics could be described as indifferent at best, hostile at worst. A week before the Games opened, The New York Times published a strange column criticizing Princeton for sending athletes and proclaiming that each participant should know that he was traveling to “a third-rate capital where he will not even have a daily post from the outside world, where he will be devoured by fleas . . . and where, if he does win all the prizes, it will be an honor requiring explanation.”

It’s unlikely any of the athletes saw that story, as they would have already set across the Atlantic on the Fulda, the first leg of a two-week journey that would take them to Naples, then across Italy by train, then another boat to Greece, followed by another train to Athens.

Those men trained as well as they could on the decks of the Fulda, though, wrote Princeton’s Ellery Clark, “the captain, after a single glance at our spiked shoes, promptly forbade them upon his much-prized decks.” Clark was a high jumper, which made his training especially tricky. If the ship was climbing a wave, “about two feet was the limit you might attain.” However, when the boat was falling, Clark experienced the same sensation that astronauts would decades later feel during parabolic flights to simulate weightlessness: “There came the glorious sensation of flying through space; and a world’s record appeared to be surpassed with ease; and one’s only fear was overstaying one’s time in the air, and landing, not on the decks again, but in the furrow of the wake astern.”

In his memoir, jumper James Connolly recounts how his wallet was stolen on the layover in Naples, and how authorities detained him at the train station, insisting he prosecute the thief. Meanwhile, his train was about to depart. “[The authorities] all but pinned my arms behind me,” he wrote. One minute before the 8 a.m. ride was scheduled to leave, he broke free and made a dash for the tracks. A guard tried to block his way, but “I sidestepped him and made the running board of the coach with one last long, flying stride,” whereupon three teammates pulled him through the window of the moving carriage. “If I had missed that train I would not have reached Athens in time for my event.”

If that sounds too wild to be true, it might be. Connolly also claimed that the U.S. athletes arrived in Athens under the impression that they had nearly two weeks to prepare. According to his story, the Americans were using the Julian calendar while the Greeks were still on the Gregorian calendar, which was 12 days behind. Thus, Connolly said, shortly after they arrived they found out the Games were starting the next day. However, U.S. newspapers had been reporting the correct starting date for weeks. (It’s likely Connolly just borrowed the story of the 1908 Russian team, which due to a calendar mixup showed up to the London Games just as they were ending.)

Whatever schedule the Americans were on, they arrived the night of April 5 and immediately their plan to retire to the Hotel D’Angleterre for a good night’s sleep was undone by the reception that awaited them. They were greeted at the train station by a throng of locals and two bands, then shepherded to the mayor’s office for a fete. “There were speeches; cordial, we had no doubt; lengthy, we were certain,” Clark recalled. They were offered glasses of white wine, which they were not allowed to refuse. “The idea that this form of reception was, perhaps, not the best thing for athletic training, never seemed to occur to the local authorities,” sprinter Thomas P. Curtis wrote years later.

The athletes woke up the next morning unsure of what to expect. No one, really, was certain how much local interest the Games would receive. “We knew for sure that the idea of reviving the Olympic Games had not inspired great confidence,” wrote one Russian member of the International Olympic Committee, General Aleksey Butowsky, who recalled seeing Russian Greeks on his train to Athens who were embarrassed to admit they were going to the Games.

Shortly before noon the Americans left their hotel, and “up to this very moment we had no slightest idea what the Games meant to Greece,” Clark wrote. The ride to the stadium put to rest any doubts. Thousands of fans filled the streets, on their way to pack the Panathenaic Stadium, originally built in 330 B.C.E. and restored for the Games with Pentillic marble.

After a speech from the head of the organizing committee, crown prince Constantine, Greece’s King George I opened the Games. (Coubertin, having spearheaded the effort to bring the Olympics back to life, was squeezed out by the Greeks during the Games themselves. He played no part in the opening ceremony and was largely relegated to the role of a journalist.) Four heats of the 100 meters were followed by the first medal event, the triple jump, which was won—undeniably—by Connolly, who described his postrace shower in vivid detail: “I allowed two attendants with twelve-foot soft towels to dry me off, and two others with the six-foot hard towels to scrape me briskly. They were all the while saying, ‘Nike! Nike!’ ” (Nike being the Greek goddess of victory.)

Connolly: Dodger of authorities, winner of triple jump, recipient of much toweling. 

Connolly: Dodger of authorities, winner of triple jump, recipient of much toweling. 

The next final was the discus, where Princeton’s Robert Garrett carried the Americans’ hopes. A shot putter by trade, Garrett’s interest had been piqued Stateside when his coach showed him the schedule of events. Garrett had never touched a discus, let alone thrown one, so he studied some classical art and guessed at the size and composition of the equipment, and he gave the rough specs to a blacksmith. The discus he got back was roughly one foot in diameter and, being made of steel, weighed around 30 pounds. Unable to throw it more than a few feet, Garrett gave up the idea.

When he arrived in Athens, though, he saw the actual object that would be used: eight inches in diameter, weighing fewer than five pounds. He decided to give it a go, eschewing the classical technique he’d seen in countless sculptures in favor of something similar to what hammer throwers did. Reports vary on Garrett’s first two throws—Curtis said they nearly maimed spectators—but his third was brilliant, surpassing the best throw from the favored Greeks by 19 centimeters.

While all of this was happening, the Paine brothers were still making their way from Paris to Athens. They finally arrived on the night of April 9 and had to be ready by 8 the next morning to shoot in the military pistol competition. After their .22s were ruled illegal because they weren’t standard issue, the Paines blasted away with Colt .45s. To combat the glare of the sun they used matches to blacken their barrels; to combat their “travel-disturbed nerves,” in the words of travel writer Burton Harris, they “took frequent sips of whisky from pocket-flasks.” And John won, with Sumner coming in second. The following day, during the free pistol event, nearly all of the other competitors were sipping whiskey and smoking their guns, even though the sky was overcast. (Casual boozing was a recurring theme. The Crown Prince was often seen delivering cognac to athletes as they rested, and Spyridon Louis, who became a Greek national hero after winning the marathon, was reported to have downed a glass of cognac given to him by his future father-in-law during the race.)

In the free pistol, this time with John sitting out (the brothers decided ahead of time that whoever won the first event would skip the second), Sumner placed first, giving the Yanks yet another victory. U.S. triumph, in fact, became such a common occurrence that, according to travel writer Burton Holmes, after one particularly impressive run of results in track and field, the Greek prime minister turned to his U.S. counterpart and asked, “Why did Columbus discover your unconquerable country?”

* * *

There’s an old joke: If Neil Armstrong had been from Boston, the Globe headline on July 21, 1969, would have been HUB MAN ON MOON. The underlying sentiment goes a long way toward explaining The Boston Post’s front-page headline on April 11, 1896, BOSTON WINS OLYMPIC LAURELS, above a cartoon of a classical Greek putting a laurel on the head of Tom Burke, a Boston University law student who in Athens won the 100 and 400 meters. An event that had largely been overlooked beforehand was suddenly an intense source of pride. And this U.S. dominance was remarked upon in Greece as well: One Athenian paper attributed the Americans’ success to chewing gum, which, it was posited, strengthened the lungs.

By all accounts these foreign victories were not met in Greece with bitterness. Anytime a Boston athlete did something good, his teammates would launch into the Boston Athletic Association’s cheer—“B.A.A. Rah! Rah! Rah!”—three times, followed by the competitor’s name. At one point, according to Curtis, the King sent an emissary to the Bostonians and asked them to once again “make that funny sound.”

Spectators in April 1896 at the restored Panathenaic Stadium.

Spectators in April 1896 at the restored Panathenaic Stadium.

The Games wound to a close on April 15. The following morning, the Americans had breakfast with the king, who implored them to do their cheer one last time. Rain forced the postponement for one day of the scheduled awards program, where winners eventually received silver medals—gold would have been too gauche for amateurs—along with diplomas and olive wreaths. Second-place finishers got bronze copper medals, diplomas and wreaths of laurel.

Curtis, who won the 110-meter hurdles, recalls staying in Athens for “about 10 days of entertainment and merrymaking.” That included a picnic at which the Americans gave a baseball demonstration, using a walking stick and an orange, which Curtis cut in half with an ambitious swing.

The delegation then embarked on the long trip home, where, upon arriving, the Boston contingent was toasted at Faneuil Hall, followed by a banquet that, the Globe noted, was “not training table fare.” And with that, the Olympic experience was, for most, over. (Only Garrett and Connolly competed in 1900.) They went back to their jobs, their studies, their families. Burke would become one of the founders of the Boston Marathon. Connolly went on to become, fittingly perhaps, a fiction writer. After reconciling with his wife, Sumner Paine died of pneumonia at the age of 35.

Following the Games, Coubertin wrote a summary for The Century magazine, and while it contained some rather Coubertinian prose (“the students of the university got up ovations under the windows of the foreign athletic crews, and harangued them in the noble tongue of Demosthenes”), when it came to assessing the impact of his pet project, the Frenchman was restrained. “Should the institution prosper—as I am persuaded, all civilized nations aiding it will—it may be a potent, if indirect factor in securing universal peace.”

The institution did, of course, prosper. Despite a movement to keep the Games in Athens permanently, it was decided they would be staged at different locations, allowing Coubertin—who became head of the IOC after Athens—to reclaim an active role in their development, leading the committee for three decades before stepping down. When he died, in 1937, he was buried near the committee’s headquarters in Lusanne, Switzerland—all of him except for his heart, which was removed from his body, placed inside an urn and entombed in a monument in Olympia.