Back to Where the Games Began


In honor of the “Throwback Thursday” theme, we’re taking a look back to the year of 1896.  It was the year of the first modern Olympic Games, being hosted in Athens, Greece.  At that time, only 241 men representing 14 countries competed at the Games.  The first Team USA was comprised of 12 Ivy League men, competing in either athletics or shooting.

But it was not easy for these athletes to convince their schools to let them compete at the Olympics.  At the time, Amercians (including the athletes) did not believe that the Olympics were going to be all that special – just another international competition.  Some critics even thought the idea of an Olympic Games would fail.  The only requirement for someone to be an Olympian at the time was to “just show up“.

A few of the athletes almost did not get the chance to compete.  Harvard would only let athletes compete if they traveled under the banner of the Boston Athletics Association.  The college president, Charles William Eliot, did not have a high opinion of intercollegiate competition, let alone of the Olympics.  But one athlete, William Welles Hoyt, had to drop out of Harvard and claim that he was ill in order for him to leave his studies to compete in Athens.  His classmate, James Connolly, also had to drop out of Harvard in order to compete as his initial leave of absence request was denied by the college.

For the Princeton athletes, they were able to travel under the banner of a classics professor, William Sloane (Columbia ’68), as Sloane was the founder and present of the United States Olympic Committee and served on the International Olympic Committee.  Sloane even helped Robert Garrett, Jr., learn how to throw the discus as the discus was not yet integrated into American track and field.  This helped Garrett as he won the event during the Olympic competition, as well as winning the shot put.

Needless to say, the Americans did very well at the 1896 Olympics.  Of the 14 athletes who represented Team USA, 12 of them won at least one medal and Team USA won 11 Olympic titles.  Americans won 9 of the 12 athletics events.  At the time, Olympic champions won silver medals, an olive branch, and a diploma, while runner’s up received bronze medals.  So when we share the results below, we have converted the results into modern day “gold-silver-bronze” lineup.


Athletes under the Princeton banner at the 1896 Olympic Games (L-R): Francis Lane, Herbert Jamison, Robert Garrett, Jr., and Albert Tyler



Representatives from Harvard at the 1896 Olympic Games: standing – T.E. Burke, Thomas Curtis, Ellery Clark. Seated: W.W. Hoyt, Sumner Paine, Trainer John Graham, John B. Paine, Arthur Blake

For further information about the 1896 Summer Olympics:

The History Channel: “Remembering the First U.S. Olympic Team”

Discovery News: “Summer Olympics: 1896 vs 2012”

Olympic Games: “Photos: Athens 1896”

1984 TV miniseries: The First Olympics: Athens 1896″

Fact Monster: 1896 Olympics

Wikipedia: 1896 Summer Olympics

Harvard Magazine: “The Unexpected Olympians”

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