120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 2) : Harvard student Jim Connolly overcomes difficulties to become the first Champion


We have started our special ‘Olympic Diaries’ to commemorate 120 years of the biggest sporting event in the world. Here is the second edition of this series. Read the first one of the 120 stories here.

It definitely takes a lot of skills just to make it to the Olympic Games and to represent one nation. However, sometimes, only the abilities are not enough to ensure a berth in the Olympics team. Jim Connolly was such a person who had to struggle tons to get on the American team in 1896; but when he made it, there was nothing to stand between him and his destiny. Here is the story of that person who became the first Champions of the first modern Olympics.

Initial struggle to attend the Olympics:

James Brendan Connolly was one of 12 children born to poor Irish immigrants. Connolly, a freshman at Harvard at that time, approached the Dean of the Ivy League college with a request to allow him to take part in the first modern Olympics. What he received in return was not at all what he expected. Although a senior Ellery Clark was granted the permission, Connolly was not in luck. However, instead of choosing the safe decision to abide by the rules and the dean’s verdict, Connolly exclaimed sternly,  “I am going to the Olympic Games, so I am through with Harvard right now. Good day, sir.”

The determined 27-year-old guy Irish American then started preparing for the trip to Athens. Hailing from a poor family, first and foremost task was to ensure that he has enough money to make this trip. He managed to save a meager $250 for his onward journey and thought it would be just enough, only to be informed by the captain of the German freighter taking the American athletes to Greece that he would need at least 75 bucks more. Devastated, despaired, Connolly approached Father Daniel O’Callaghan of St. Augustine’s in South Boston.

Many people are ignorant of the fact that the motto of the Olympic Games, “citius, altius, forties”, meaning “swifter, higher, stronger,” was coined by a French Catholic priest Father Henri Didon. The motto specifically urges people to be at their best and the Dominican priest’s envision was to use the games as a means to achieve spiritual greatness through physical competitions. Much similar to this, Father Daniel followed this outlook and helped Connolly raise the much needed money and with renewed enthusiasm, the athlete was on his way to Athens.

Journey to Athens:

A rational and optimistic mind would naturally think that Jim Connolly was over the initial struggle and could focus on his games now that financial issues were resolved. Well, life is sometimes not so smooth. On his way to Athens, somewhere around Italy, Connolly lost his wallet and his return ticket. Later he pursued the thief, retrieved everything and took a separate train to Athens. On the other hand, the American team spent nearly seventeen days traveling across the Atlantic and they planned to reach Greece 12 days prior to the opening. Good plan, isn’t it? What the Americans did not consider is that the Greeks used to follow Julian calendars at that time and so, the period they thought 12 days turned out to be a single day. Exhausted from the journey, the theft and the unforeseen circumstances, Jim Connolly was there in Athens, to compete in Triple Jump, first event of the first modern Olympics.

Performance in the Olympics:

On April 6, 1896, at 2 pm, after the introductory speech by Crown Prince Constantine of Greece and the inauguration by King George I, the first event, Triple Jump was under way. The event was called the “hop, hop and jump” at that time. The Harvard student was the last to compete in the event and it was the beginning of a fairy-tale. James Connolly showed no sign of exhaustion and out-distanced every other competitor with a jump of 13.71 meters. To understand the greatness of his achievement, here is another fact – that jump was a remarkable three feet and three inches ahead of his nearest rival. And thus, Connolly became the first champion of the modern Olympics and grabbed the silver medal (remember that the tradition of awarding gold to the winner was not inaugurated until 1908).

The first Olympics hero followed his first victory with two more medals – one for finishing second in the high jump and another for becoming the third in the long jump. Jump was his thing, undoubtedly. Jim Connolly’s exuberant performances were witnessed by more than forty thousand spectators, including some sailors from the USS San Francisco. In all, 285 men of thirteen different nationalities participated in the 42 events and Connolly emerged to be the Champion of the Champions!  representing 13 nations. As the American flag was ceremoniously hoisted and a 200-piece band played the Star Spangled Banner, his heart must have been filled with enormous pride.

Return to the country:

In spite of winning all the medals, Jim Connolly returned home with almost no money. More agonizingly, despite being the biggest champion of the first Olympics, his country did not arrange any special welcome for him. However, the Irish community of South Boston were not so ignorant and they embraced Connolly with such grandeur that made him feel like a king. The citizens of that community also gifted a gold watch to their hero. Quite expectedly, he never returned to the Harvard University. A year later, the elite university realized the magnitude of Connolly’s success and to offset their hasty decision earlier, the authority offered an honorary doctorate to the athlete. However, Connolly, ever the man of integrity, refused it graciously and went on to become a noted journalist and war correspondent in his later life. He also became an authority on maritime writing and authored over 200 short stories and 25 novels, including The Olympic Victory (1908). He even ran for the US Congress on the Progressive Party ticket, but was never elected.


Jim Connolly, the Hero of the first modern Olympics, surely had a lot of dedication and determination to succeed, along with all the skills and excellence. Want to know more such Olympics related stories? Follow Sports-nova in Facebook and we will bring more such exciting stories to you.

Photo by Toby Simkin