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Olympic History: Triumph & Tragedy

July 20, 1996|BOB HERZOG | Newsday

1896: Athens

French baron Pierre de Coubertin's dream of worldwide athletic competition came true April 6 as a crowd of 80,000 filled a newly built stadium for the opening ceremony of the first modern Olympic Games.

Thirteen nations sent 311 male athletes. The first Olympic medal was won by American James B. Connolly, a Harvard student, in the hop, step and jump (now the triple jump).

After sailing across the Atlantic, he was the victim of a pickpocket in Naples, Italy. He was delayed by authorities, unimpressed with his story about going to the Olympics. They hadn't heard of them.

Connolly finally arrived in Athens, thinking it was late March. But the Greek Orthodox calendar, which ran 12 days ahead of the Western calendar, was in effect, and it was April 5, one day before he was scheduled to compete. He won anyway.

Gold was considered vulgar, so his winning medal was silver. Gold wasn't used until 1904.

The signature event of the Games was the marathon. The host nation, which had not won a medal in track, was saved by a Greek shepherd named Spiridon Louis, who entered the stadium to a roar and won.

1900: Paris

De Coubertin had envisioned a gala Olympic setting for his hometown, complete with new stadiums and parks, and classic Greek architecture.

Officials turned down his request, however, the Olympics instead was combined with a World's Fair and the results were devastating: inadequate venues, poor publicity, confusion over schedules and results, a mix of sports that included golf, rugby, cricket and croquet, but no boxing or wrestling, and the Games running from May through October.

Still, there were some genuine highlights. Britain's Charlotte Cooper became the first female Olympic champion, winning the singles tennis tournament, and one of the most decorated American athletes in Olympic history, Ray Ewry, won the standing high jump, standing long jump and standing triple jump, all discontinued after the 1908 Games. In his career, Ewry won 10 Olympic titles.

The biggest star, however, was American Alvin Kranzlein, who won the 60 meters and the 110-meter and 200-meter hurdles.

1904: St. Louis

Once again, the Games were combined with a World's Fair but much of the world was busy with other things. The Russo-Japanese War was heating up and the British navy was mobilized when the Suez Canal was threatened.

England sent only one competitor and only 13 nations competed. Of the 687 athletes, only 107 were foreigners, 52 of those from Canada.

Even so, there were noteworthy achievements. George Poage of Milwaukee became the first black to win an Olympic medal, finishing third in the 400-meter hurdles, but wasn't even the fastest man from his hometown. Archie Hahn, "the Milwaukee Meteor," won the 60 meters, 100 meters and 200 meters.

Ray Ewry again won the standing high jump, long jump and triple jump; Harry Hillman won the 400, plus the 400- and 200-meter low hurdles, and Meyer Prinstein won the long jump and triple jump.

Outstanding, though, was Thomas Kiely, 35, who gave Ireland its first Olympic medal in the 10-event forerunner to the decathlon. Included were the 100-yard sprint, shotput, high jump, 880-yard walk, hammer, pole vault, 120-yard hurdles, 56-pound weight throw, long jump and mile--all in one day.

1908: London

Rome had been designated the host city but backed out when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906, and Olympic funds were used to rebuild the Italian city.

But on short notice, London staged the first truly world-wide Games--more than 2,000 athletes from 22 nations participated--memorable primarily for the marathon.

On a hot, muggy day, South African Charles Heffernan and Italian Dorando Pietri were battling for the lead when, about two miles from the finish, Heffernan reportedly accepted champagne from a fan, got dizzy and faded. That left only American John Hayes to chase Pietri.

Pietri entered Shepherd's Bush Stadium first but then the heat got to him. He began staggering the wrong way, was redirected by officials, then fell. Officials helped him up but he collapsed several more times before struggling across the finish line first, in the arms of an official.

The Italian flag was raised just as Hayes entered the stadium and finished. American officials promptly protested that Pietri had received illegal help. The protest was upheld and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.

1912: Stockholm

These were Jim Thorpe's Olympics. After finishing fourth in the high jump and seventh in the long jump, a legend was born. In the pentathlon, he blew away the field by winning the long jump, discus, 200 meters and 1,500-meters and finishing third in the javelin. And in the three-day decathlon, Thorpe, of Irish, French and mainly American Indian descent, won the gold with 8,412 points, an astonishing 688 points better than silver medalist Hugo Wieslander of Sweden. It was his first try at the decathlon.

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