The year before the first Boston Marathon, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) played a critical role in American victories at the first modern Olympics in Athens. This little-known chapter in the BAA’s history is well-told in the new book “Igniting the Flame: America’s First Olympic Team” (Lyons) by sportswriter Jim Reisler. It is a rollicking tale of scrappy athletes, adversity, and triumph.
At a time when the Olympics commanded little respect or interest in the United States, the BAA launched a fund-raising drive to pay travel expenses for a band of Boston athletes competing in the 1896 Games. When its effort fell short, former Massachusetts governor Oliver Ames came up with the rest of the money.
The BAA sponsored eight of the14 athletes who would represent America. A ninth Boston athlete, James Connolly, sponsored by the Suffolk Athletic Club, dropped out of Harvard to compete in the Games after the university president denied his request for a leave. The boat trip alone took almost two weeks, and the president didn’t want him to miss so much of the semester.
Connolly, the pride of South Boston, became the first Olympic champion in 1,500 years when he won the triple jump on opening day before 60,000 spectators. Reisler quotes him as saying, “I went floating — not walking — across the stadium arena on waves of what sounded like a million voices and two million hands cheering and applauding.”
MacDowell open house
Books, plays, musical compositions, and other works of art that had their start at the MacDowell Colony figure among the nation’s best-loved. Past residents include Thornton Wilder, James Baldwin, and Alice Walker. Each fellow lives and works in a private studio, and lunch is left at the doorstep every day so as not to disturb the creative process.
One Sunday a year the colony in Peterborough, N.H., invites the public to roam its idyllic fields and woods and picnic on the grounds. Also on that day, the Edward MacDowell Medal is awarded to an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to his or her field. This year’s recipient is photographer Nan Goldin, known for her gritty and intensely personal pictures. She will be feted at 12:15 p.m. next Sunday. Speakers at the ceremony will be author Michael Chabon, chairman of the colony’s board of directors, and Luc Sante, chairman of this year’s medalist selection committee. Artists-in-residence will host studio tours from 2 to 5 p.m.
Literary trivia contest
It’s time for bookish types to rise and shine. Teams will compete on Monday in a literary trivia contest, with proceeds to benefit the Boston Book Festival. Meghna Chakrabarti of WBUR’s “Radio Boston” will be the trivia jockey at Tommy Doyle’s in Cambridge from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.
Coming out ■ “Wild Hope: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success” by Andrew Balmford (University of Chicago)
■ “Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writings” by Neal Stephenson (Morrow)
■ “Sneaky Pie for President”by Rita Mae Brown (Bantam)
Pick of the week
Anita Silvey, creator of the Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac website, recommends “The Lions of Little Rock” by Kristin Levine (Putnam): “In 1958, Little Rock, Ark., closed schools rather than integrate them. A 12-year-old white girl forms a friendship with a young black girl that brings them both into the horrific events of the politically-charged landscape. This middle-grade novel explores how the young can make a difference in history when they care about the fate of others.”