The story of the first modern-day Olympic champion is remarkable.
James Connolly was the son of Irish immigrants and grew up in Boston. He dropped out of formal education before high school, but as a young adult gained admission to prestigious Harvard College.
When he heard about the first modern Olympic Games, scheduled for Athens, Greece, in 1896, Connolly — an avid athlete — wanted to participate and asked Harvard officials for a leave of absence. Told that he could resign from school and reapply after The Olympics, Connolly had another plan.
“I’m getting through with Harvard right now,” Connolly replied, as he later wrote in his autobiography Sea Borne: Thirty Years Avoyaging. “Good day!”
And so James Connolly was off to Europe, joining nine other American men on a steamer for the 12-day journey to Naples, Italy. There, his wallet was stolen, Connolly wrote, and he narrowly made a train ride with his teammates across Italy. (Police wanted him to stay behind and press charges.) That was followed by another boat ride and a 10-hour train ride to Athens – where Connolly and his teammates mistakenly thought they would have a few days to recover from their journey across the world and prepare to compete.
“The date set for the opening of the games was according to the Greek calendar, not ours,” Connolly wrote. “There were no twelve days left for our training. The games opened that very day! Zoops! After six thousand miles and sixteen days of travel some of us would have to compete that day.”
A few hours later, Connolly was set for his first event, the hop, skip and jump – now known as the triple jump. He watched the jumpers before him; some did a hop, skip and jump, while others did two hops and a jump.
“I came to Athens all set to do a hop, step, and jump; yet in that stadium that day, in contest for an Olympic championship, I shifted at the last moment to a two hops and a jump, which I hadn’t jumped since a boy against other boys,” Connolly wrote.
The result was a jump of 44 feet 11 ¾ inches, good for first place — and a silver medal in the first-ever event of the modern Olympic Games. (The custom of gold, silver, bronze for order of finish did not take place until the St. Louis 1904 Olympic Games.) Connolly took second place in the high jump and third in the long jump.
At the Paris 1900 Olympic Games, Connolly took second in the triple jump. He went to the St. Louis 1904 Olympic Games as a journalist and subsequently enjoyed a career as a writer.
Connolly passed away in 1957. He was 88.