Today, amateur America goes to its first Olympic
Games. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
By the 6th century BC,
athletic games were regular events in Greece. The
Olympic Games might be the oldest of those. The
first records we have of Olympic champions are from
776 BC. The games themselves were probably hundreds
of years older still.
The earliest contest was a 200-yard run. Later,
more games were added: horse races, other foot
races, wrestling, javelin, discus. Women weren't
allowed to compete or even watch. As the games
grew, fat purses replaced olive wreaths. Athletes
turned professional. Rome made major spectacles of
the games. Finally the Christian Emperor Theodosius
was fed up with the pagan and commercial quality of
the games. He abolished them in 393 AD.
They stayed dead for 1500 years. Then, in 1892, a
young French aristocrat, Pierre de Coubertin,
called for an Olympic revival. He believed the
games would create international harmony. His
efforts led to the first modern Olympics in Athens,
in 1896. The King of Greece opened the new games.
America took no official interest, but writer Bob
Fulton tells how 13 American athletes went to
Athens on their own. (Compare that with 700
American athletes going to the 1996 games.)
Harvard student James Connolly was the first to
decide he'd go. He asked for a leave of absence and
his dean said, "No!" Connolly, forced to drop out
of Harvard, never forgave the school.
The Boston Athletics Association sent five
athletes. One was Thomas Burke, who ran the 440. He
was the only national champion who went. The rest
were simply people who wanted to compete. All had
to dig up the money to get there. These 13
colonists of the new Olympics boarded the tramp
steamer Fulda and set off for Athens.
In Naples, they learned that Greece was on the old
Julian calendar. The games, scheduled for April 6,
would begin on March 25th by Western reckoning.
There was nothing to do but to cross Italy, catch a
ship to Patras, and make a 10-hour train ride that
reached Athens the day before the games. There they
faced a grueling welcoming ritual with hours of
speeches in Greek and toasts over cups of retsina.
They arrived at the games bone-weary, hung over,
with no hope of doing well. Then -- a miracle
Connolly won the first modern Olympic gold medal in
the triple jump. During the next days those 13
Americans (and two more who traveled separately)
won 11 gold medals -- the most by any country.
Robert Garrett, from Princeton, competed in several
events. The discus was unknown in America so he had
a blacksmith fashion one like those in Greek art.
It weighed 20 pounds -- much too heavy to throw.
Once in Greece, he found that a modern discus only
weighed five pounds. He practiced with one for a
few days. Then he dethroned the Greek champion.
Garret came home with four gold medals.
Today the games are played by athletes who are
professional in everything but pay. It's a
different world -- one whose glory is hard pressed
to match those wonderful amateurs, a century ago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds