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Athens 1896

Connolly takes a leap into the history books

The track-and-field programme in Athens was dominated by athletes from the USA, who would go on to win nine of the 12 events. And on 6 April 1896, American James Connolly earned the distinction of becoming the very first Olympic champion of the modern era, as he clinched the triple jump title.

Born into a family of poor Irish immigrants, Connolly grew up in Boston where he quickly showed a natural talent for a variety of sports, notably American football and cycling. Having dropped out of education before high school, he later embarked on a period of self-tuition, and eventually managed to win a scholarship to study classics at Harvard University in 1895.

He retained a passion for sporting pursuits, and a year later applied to the university for leave of absence so that he could compete in Athens. Denied his request, he gave up his studies and travelled to Athens with most of the other American athletes, on a German freighter, the Barbarossa. His sprinting skills were to stand him in good stead even before reaching Athens. After landing in Naples, he had his wallet stolen.

The local police wanted him to stay and prosecute the thief and, as he later recalled “all but pinned my arms behind me to stay.” But Connolly was determined to make it to Athens. Breaking lose, he ran for the train to Brindisi, which was already pulling out of the station. He made it with a flying leap. “Three good pals … grabbed me so I wouldn’t fall back overboard and hauled me through the compartment window,” he explained. “I did not know it then, but if I had missed that train I would not have reached Athens in time for my event in the games.”

The triple jump – or hop, skip and jump as it was then known – was the first medal event of the opening day of the Games. The 27-year-old Connolly outjumped the field, producing a leap of 13.71m to finish more than one metre ahead of his nearest opponent and become the first Olympic champion since AD385. Connolly's turn came last. He walked out to the sandpit after the other jumpers had finished, removed his cap, and tossed it to the ground a yard beyond the best jump. The astonished crowd now watched intently as he breathed on his hands (the next day's papers reported that he had uttered a prayer), then wiped his jersey preparatory to his run. Then he bounded down the runway and hopped, hopped, and jumped beyond the cap. The spectators sprang up shouting, “It's a miracle!”

He went on to finish second in the high jump, with his effort of 1.65m leaving him tied with compatriot Robert Garrett behind their fellow American Ellery Clark. And he also took third place in the long jump (5.84m), again behind Clark.

After serving with the 9th Massachusetts Infantry at the Siege of Santiago in 1898 he returned to the Olympic stage two years later for the second edition of the Games in Paris. Despite improving on his distance, he lost his triple jump title to fellow American Meyer Prinstein.

He was also present at the 1904 Games in St Louis, but this time as a journalist covering the event for the Boston Globe. And he would go on to become a leading authority on maritime matters, spending many years at sea, and publishing more than 200 short stories, and 25 novels.

He died in New York at the age of 88.

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