First Games had fairy-tale ending Greek's marathon win made dream come true for founder, nation

February 18, 1996|By NEWSDAY

It was the original Dream Scheme. French baron Pierre de Coubertin, whose worldly view of sports and culture made him the founding father of the modern Olympics, saw his vision become a reality on April 6, 1896. On that day, a crowd of 80,000 filled a newly built stadium in Athens, Greece, for the opening ceremonies of the first modern Olympic Games.

The poignant and powerful personal dramas that have highlighted the Games for a century were evident from the beginning as 13 nations sent 311 male athletes to Athens, the perfect setting for an odyssey.

The first Olympic medal was awarded to an American named James B. Connolly, a Harvard student whose journey to Greece was far more eventful than his victory in the hop, step and jump (now the triple jump).

After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, he was the victim of a pickpocket in Naples, Italy. He was delayed by authorities, who were unimpressed with his story about going to the Olympics. They hadn't even heard of them.

When Connolly finally arrived in Athens, he was shocked to find that instead of it's being March 24, as he thought, it was actually April 5. The Greek Orthodox calendar, which ran 12 days ahead of the Western calendar, was in effect. Connolly was scheduled to jump the next day.

When his turn came, he was fighting a severe case of ship lag. But he was cheered by crew members of the USS Liberty, which was docked nearby.

"I came quite awake then," he said, and proceeded to win the event with a leap of 44 feet, 11 3/4 inches -- 3 inches better than Alexandre Tuffere of France. "It was a moment in a young man's life," Connolly said.

It was not, however, a golden moment. Back then, gold was considered vulgar -- it didn't become the winner's medal until 1904 -- and a silver medal went to the first-place athlete in each event.

Unfortunately for the host nation, its trackmen weren't winning medals of any kind, disappointing the fans and the government. The United States had won nine of the 11 track events entering the final event -- the marathon.

This race was tied to the very culture and history of Greece. Most every citizen knew the story of the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., when 7,000 Greek warriors defeated 20,000 invading Persians on the Plains of Marathon, a town about 40 kilometers (a little more than 24 miles) from Athens.

After the battle, a runner was sent from Marathon to Athens to announce the great victory. When he reached the center of Athens, he gasped out the words, "Ne Nakikamen." "Yes, we are victorious." Moments later he collapsed and died.

With this enormous weight on his slight shoulders, a Greek shepherd named Spiridon Louis joined 16 others for the long run into history.

An American, an Englishman, a Hungarian and a German took turns leading the race, and messengers on bicycle and horseback relayed this disturbing news to spectators in the stadium.

But as the first of the runners approached the stadium, a horseman galloped to the royal box, where Prince George and Prince Constantine, sons of King George, were seated. The horseman whispered the news that a Greek was leading.

Word spread throughout the stadium, and by the time Louis entered ahead of the field, the crowd noise was deafening. The two princes leaped from their box to the track and escorted the weary and footsore runner across the finish line. Yes, he was victorious.

It was a dream come true for an athlete, a nation and a French baron.

1896 Olympics

Site: Athens, Greece

Dates: April 6-15

Men: 311

TC Women: 0

Nations: 13

Medals leaders:

......... ....... G ... S ... B ... T

United States .. 11 ... 6 ... 2 .. 19

Greece ......... 10 .. 19 .. 18 .. 47

Germany ......... 7 ... 5 ... 3 .. 15

France .......... 5 ... 4 ... 2 .. 11

England ......... 3 ... 3 ... 1 ... 7

Hungary ......... 2 ... 1 ... 2 ... 5

Austria ......... 2 ... 0 ... 3 ... 5

Australia ....... 2 ... 0 ... 0 ... 2

Denmark ......... 1 ... 2 ... 4 ... 7

Switzerland ..... 1 ... 2 ... 0 ... 3

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