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Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015

Let the games begin

Posted Thursday, July 26, 2012, at 11:05 AM

Well sports fans it's that magical time again.

You know the time when the countries of the world unite for two weeks in an effort to keep alive the spirit and competition that Baron Pierre de Coubertin established oh so many years ago -- the modern Olympics.

Since the games were reorganized and restarted in Athens, Greece in 1896 the United States has claimed its fair share of the medals that are handed out following each event.

Heading into this year's event in London, the USA had earned a total of 2,322 Summer Olympic medals. That includes both men and women and a gamut of 601 events in 58 sports.

While those numbers are staggering, I decided to do some research into the first games.

When a total of 241 athletes from just 14 nations descended on Athens, who would have ever thought the Olympic movement would grow to what it is today -- the largest gathering of athletes from all walks of life to one central location for two weeks of competition, shared joy and exuberance and a melding of culture, human spirit and triumph that helps define the words of Baron de Coubertin who so eloquently stated "The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. Just as in life, the aim is not to conquer but to struggle well."

The games were contested from April 6 to April 15, 1896 and consisted of just a handful of sports: athletics (track and field), cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling.

The team from the United States, which was comprised mostly of track athletes from New England, included just 14 members.

Here's the first thing that caught my attention, of those 14, a dozen combined to win a total of 20 medals.

That breaks down to 11 gold (even though they were actually made from silver), seven silver and two bronze.

The host Greeks won the most that year with 47 total (10-18-19) with Germany finishing in third with 13 total.

The United States' place in Olympic history goes well beyond just being among the first participants.

When Frank Lane toed the starting line for the first heat of the 100 meters, he officially became the first American competitor in the Olympics.

When Lane won the heat he became the first person to claim a victory in the games. He went on to finish in a tie for third in the 100 meter finals behind teammate Tom Burke and runner-up Fritz Hofmann of Germany.

If that's not significant enough, it was Lane's fellow countryman James Connolly who later that day became the first Olympic champion in over 1,500 years.

The South Boston, Mass. native ripped off what was then an Olympic record of 44 feet, 11 3/4 inches in what is now known as the triple jump.

Connolly bested Frenchman Alexndre Tufferi and Ioannis Persakis of Greece to be the first modern Olympian to reach the top step of the victory podium.

He was the first champion of an Olympic event since the year 385 A.D. and went on to win two more medals -- a silver in the high jump and a bronze in the long jump.

Burke became a double gold medalist when he later claimed the top spot in the 400 meters. He was followed across the finish line by fellow American Herbert Jamison.

The first gold medal awarded in the hurdles also went to an American as Thomas Curtis claimed victory in the 110 meter hurdles.

The 23 year old bested Great Brittain's Grantly Goulding who claimed silver in what was essentially a match race following heat races and withdrawals.

The long jump and the high jump proved to be the only medal sweep of the 1896 games in track and field -- again by the USA.

Ellery Clark (gold) along with Connolly and Bob Garrett (tied for silver) did it in the high jump and again in the long jump.

The second time around Clark headed the trio followed by Garrett in second and Connolly in third.

Clark remains the only man to ever win both the high jump and the long jump in the same Olympics.

Garrett also went on to claim multiple golds when he took both the discus and shot put titles.

There was one more 1-2 finish by the Americans and it came in the pole vault. That's where Bill Hoyt and Albert Tyler dueled for the crown before Hoyt came out on top.

Both men cleared the bar at 10-0, the only two do so, then it was Hoyt who bested his teammate with a 10-10 showing in the next round.

America's other medals came in the shooting competition where a pair of brothers claimed Olympic glory.

Sumner and John Paine were the sons of three-time America's Cup yachting champion Gen. Charles Jackson Paine.

John decided to join the members of the Boston Athletic Club, the aforementioned track athletes, on their journey to Athens.

Along the way he stopped in Paris and encouraged his brother to join him. After he arrived John won the first competition (military pistol at 25 meters) rather handily over his brother and decided to be sporting that he would withdraw from further shooting events.

Sumner took advantage of his brother's decision and claimed gold in the 30 meter free pistol competition in support of his silver medal.

There were two other athletes involved from the United States but neither won a medal.

Charles Waldstein who was both a prominent archaeologist and an honorary member of the 1894 Sorbonne Conference that established the revival of the Olympic Games under the urging of de Coubertin, as well as a member of the organizing committees of both the athletic and gymnastic events.

He also refereed the tennis and cycling competitions.

Waldstein won no medals and in 1899 assumed British nationality before being knighted in 1912.

The other was an unsuccessful swimming competitor named Gardner Williams.

The tale of Williams failure in the Olympics is likely more one of lore than fact.

Swimming events at the Athens games were contested in the open waters of the Bay of Piraeus. Swimmers were taken out by boat and had to swim toward the shoreline in a course marked by buoys that was notably difficult to follow.

The legend of the lone American swimmer was told by fellow Olympian Curtis who wrote in The Sportsman in 1932 that Williams, who was entered in the 100 meter freestyle event, jumped into the Bay and found the water quite cold.

Curtis also wrote that upon his entry into the water Williams yelled "Jesus Christ, I'm freezing" and immediately scrambled from the water.

Just for the record, the story is considered to be less than factual by most historians of the games.

Well, there you have it a small slice of history as we sit on the verge of the Games of the XXX Olympiad.

Rick Curl is a sports writer for the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached by telephone at (812) 847-4487. He can be reached by email at rcurl@gcdailyworld.com.

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