The First Winner of the Modern Olympics Was Catholic

James Brendan Connolly (Irish: Séamas Breandán Ó Conghaile) was one of 12 children born to poor Irish immigrants. He was a freshman at Harvard in 1896 when he felt the urge to compete in the first of the modern Olympiads. He approached the dean of the college requesting permission to leave school in order to go to Athens. Although Dean Le Baron Russell Briggs had granted permission to a senior, Ellery Clark, to compete, he withheld it from Jim Connolly.
Connolly was one of the few Catholics attending Harvard at that time. The safe and convenient decision would have been to stay at Harvard, get his degree, and then make his mark in the world.
But Connolly, we might say, was made of sterner stuff. “I am going to the Olympic Games,” he exclaimed, rather melodramatically, “so I am through with Harvard right now. Good day, sir.”
The 27-year-old Irish American from South Boston managed to save $250 through his own efforts and thought this would be enough to get him to Athens and back. His hopes were nearly dashed when the captain of the German freighter taking the American athletes to Greece announced that the fare would be $75 more than anticipated.
Connolly went to his parish priest, Father Daniel O’Callaghan of St. Augustine’s in South Boston. “I am not a vain man,” he stated. “I’m not out for glory. All I want to do is go over to Athens and compete in the sports competition they are having there next month.” Father O’Callaghan was an avid sports fan. Through Father O’Callaghan’s intercession, the parishioners raised the needed money, and Connolly was on his way.
Together with nine other American athletes, Connolly spent 16 1/2 days traveling across the Atlantic.
On April 6, 1896, at 2pm, the modern Olympics got under way. Connolly entered the first event, the triple jump, or more accurately at that time, the “hop, hop and jump.” He was the last to compete in this event, and he out-distanced all his predecessors. With a jump of 13.71 meters — or 44 feet, 11.75 inches — a remarkable 3 feet and 3 inches ahead of his nearest rival — he won the first championship of the modern Olympics and the first for his country. Connolly was the first Olympic winner in 1,500 years — but received only a silver medal. The tradition of awarding gold to the winner was not inaugurated until 1908 at the London Olympiad.
Connolly also finished second in the high jump and third in the long jump. Some 40,000 spectators watched the events, including sailors from the USS San Francisco. In all, 285 men participated in the 42 events, representing 13 nations. Connolly watched with pride as the American flag was ceremoniously hoisted and a 200-piece band played The Star-Spangled Banner.
Recognizing the merits of its former student and in an attempt to offset an infelicitous and hastily made decision, Dean Briggs offered Connolly an honorary doctorate. Connolly, ever the man of integrity, refused it. He went on to become a noted journalist and war correspondent. In addition, he authored 25 novels, including The Olympic Victory (1908), and 200 short stories. He continued his distinguished and varied career until his death on Jan. 20, 1957, at 87. A collection of items related to Connolly, including his triple jump silver medal, is housed in the library of Colby College in Maine.

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of HLI America, an initiative of Human Life International.