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Marathon Special Issue

A victory from defeat

How Boston Athletic Association athletes’ poor showing in one event in the 1896 Olympics inspired them to create America’s most beloved footrace.

Members of the American team for the 1896 Olympics in Athens, the first modern games.

FayFoto/Boston

Members of the American team for the 1896 Olympics in Athens, the first modern games.

Article excerpted with permission from The B.A.A. at 125: The Official History of the Boston Athletic Association, 1887-2012, by John Hanc. Copyright © 2013, Sports Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing Inc.

BY 1896, most everyone in American athletic circles had heard about the plan to revive the ancient Greek Olympic competitions. The idea had been promulgated by an energetic Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin who believed in the integration of intellectual discipline with athletic activity. As is often the case with bold new ideas, Coubertin’s plan for the Olympics was met with puzzlement and derision when he proposed it at the Sorbonne in 1892. But he was tireless in promoting his vision, and by January 1896, the first modern Games were taking shape in Athens for that April.

The founders of the Boston Athletic Association, an athletic and social club dating to1887, had a vision for sports aligned with Coubertin’s. The club’s ornate headquarters was next door to the Boston Public Library — a symbolic invocation of the “sound mind, sound body” ideals that no doubt pleased many of the founders, well versed as they were in classical history through their Boston Latin and Harvard educations. Many of the early members’ names ring familiar today, synonymous as they are with wealth, power, and tradition: Endicott, Lodge, Longfellow, Peabody, Revere, Saltonstall, and Weld, to name just a few. The mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts were also on its rolls. In 1890, the association — with 2,000 members and 400 more on a waiting list — staged no fewer than 27 sporting events, from fencing exhibitions and swimming meets to bicycle races and cross-country runs.

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As news of the Olympics spread, some of the other powerhouse athletic clubs — most notably the BAA’s archrival from New York — declined to participate. “The American amateur sportsman in general should know that in going to Athens he is taking an expensive journey to a third rate capital where he will be devoured by fleas,” sniffed The New York Times. Yet others saw something else in the Olympics: a chance to be part of something significant, maybe even historic.

Members of the BAA would make up the majority of the 14-man American delegation, including runners Arthur Blake and Tom Burke, high jumper Ellery Clark, hurdler Thomas P. Curtis, pole-vaulter W.H. Hoyt, and brothers John and Sumner Paine in shooting. One feisty and fiercely independent athlete from South Boston, Harvard student James B. Connolly, would compete in the hop, step, and jump (now called the triple jump) for the tiny Suffolk Athletic Club.

BAA runners from the 1890s in their unicorn uniforms.

New York Athletic Club

BAA runners from the 1890s in their unicorn uniforms.

Like the BAA itself, the Boston contingent of the American team had strong Harvard connections. To visit Athens, senior Ellery Clark had to ask permission to interrupt his studies for eight weeks in the middle of the semester. When his dean consented, Clark said, “I gave a shout that could have been heard, I believe half way to Boston.”

Connolly’s departure, however, was on a much different note, with the chairman of the Harvard athletic committee implying that he was simply looking for an opportunity to gallivant through Europe.

“[H]ere is what you can do,” the chairman explained. “You resign and on your return, you make reapplication to the college, and I will consider it.”

“I am not resigning and I’m not making application to reenter,” Connolly replied. “I’m through with Harvard right now. Good day!”

With that matter settled, and a last-minute fund-raising effort successfully concluded, according to The Story of the Olympic Games, “the little team started on what was to be a triumphal journey and the beginning of United States ascendancy in the modern Olympic Games.”

***

  

AFTER LEAVING NEW YORK by ship on March 20, 1896, the American team arrived in Athens on April 5, the day before the opening of the Games. “Athens that day was surely the liveliest and most colorful city in the world,” observed Connolly, who remembered a raucous dinner in which the teetotaling Boston athletes were forced by the exuberant German delegation to drink toasts to their health.

Tom Curtis, an MIT student, was in the first heat of the first event, a preliminary race for the 100-meter run. Years later, Curtis would remember walking into Olympic stadium. “Row after row of people all dressed in holiday attire lined the seats of the Stadium, while at the end sat the King and Royal Family of Greece, the King of Serbia, two Grand Dukes of Russia, and hundreds of officers of different nationalities,” he wrote in an essay for his alma mater. “Eighty-two thousand people were seated and thirty thousand more, for whom there was no room, were standing tier on tier on a hill that towered above one side of the seats.”

Curtis took the lead at the crack of the pistol and accelerated, crossing the line well ahead of the rest. For the first time in Olympic competition, the American flag was hoisted. “It was a sight to stir the blood,” Ellery Clark later recalled in a memoir. “Forgetting that we were in a country where college and club cheering was unknown, we sprang to our feet, and our shouts rang out lustily among the field.”

BAA . . . rah, rah, rah!

BAA . . . rah, rah, rah!

BAA . . . rah, rah, rah . . .  

Curtis!

Cheering in such a way was utterly foreign to European audiences, who sat in stunned silence. A Greek report described them as “absurd shouts,” while a French observer said they were “the cries of overgrown children.” But Clark remembered no such backlash. After a moment of confusion, he said, the crowd embraced the exuberance of the young Americans. “We had, by good fortune, chanced to please the popular taste, and the cheer from that moment until we left Athens was in constant demand.”

The wildly successful team in the Olympic stadium.

Trustees of the Boston Public Library

The wildly successful team in the Olympic stadium.

The first medal event of the Games was the hop, step, and jump. The crowd gasped when Connolly propelled himself a full meter farther than any of his competitors. The Stars and Stripes were again hoisted, and members of the crew of the USS San Francisco — on shore leave from the Athens-docked cruiser — rose as one. As Connolly recalled it, “the stadium was all a hush and every spectator there was standing. To myself I said, ‘You’re the first Olympic victor in fifteen hundred years.’ ”

There were more victors to come from the BAA.

On day two, Curtis won his heat in the 110-meter hurdles. Then it was Clark’s turn in the broad jump. After fouling twice, Clark recalled thinking, “Five thousand miles, I had come; and was it to end in this?” But he calmed himself — and won. Next, Tom Burke — a track star for Boston University — won the 400 in a time of 54 seconds.

The next two days were devoted primarily to shooting — John and Sumner Paine each won first-place medals — and gymnastics. On the last day, Burke won the finals of the 100 meters, his second victory in the Games and a “double” unimaginable in today’s track world, where 100- and 400-meter runners are distinct specialists. “The easy manner in which [Burke] romped to victory made him the talk of the Games,” recalled one observer.

Finally, it was Curtis’s turn. BAA coach John Graham had held him out of the 100-meter finals in order to keep him fresh for the hurdles. And with good reason: The opponent was Grantley Goulding of Great Britain, who had strutted around Athens all week wearing medals from previous victories and predicting victory once again. Goulding was wrong. When Curtis beat him in the finals by 2 feet, Goulding “stopped neither to linger nor to say farewell, but went from the stadium to the station and took the first train away from Athens.”

On the last day of the Olympics, the attention of the packed stadium, as well as many of the athletes, was on the “bonus” event, the one contrived specifically for the Games: the marathon.

During the Olympic planning, a friend of Coubertin’s, professor Michel Breal, had suggested adding a new event, far longer than anything ever held in the original Olympic Games. Breal, a classicist, named the race after the great ancient battle at Marathon, at the conclusion of which a messenger named Pheidippides had supposedly run 40 kilometers back to Athens with news of its victory.

As the race got underway, the Greeks fervently wanted one of their own countrymen to win the race. Intent on news of the leader, the stadium was silent. Clark — who along with his teammates was waiting and watching as breathlessly as the fans — remembered the electricity of the moment. “A murmur arose in the long line of watchers outside the entrance — a murmur which grew to a shout, and then swelled to a vast roar — ‘Greek! A Greek wins!’ and a moment later, panting, dusty travel-strained, but still running true and strong, Spiridon Louis burst into the stadium, the winner of the race, the hero of the day, and the idol of his people.”

The obscure Louis had left the road littered with more experienced and accomplished runners — including the BAA’s Blake, who dropped out at mile 15.  As soon as Louis crossed the finish line, he became the greatest hero of the 1896 Games.

***

  

THE BAA’S TEAM RETURNED HOME IN TRIUMPH. Its track and field athletes had won six of the 11 first-place medals accrued overall by the US team, while the Paine brothers added two more in the shooting events. The railroad station was mobbed when its train pulled in. There was a public reception in Faneuil Hall, and Boston’s mayor held an extravagant invitation-only event in the team’s honor at the Hotel Vendome. (“A great dinner with many resounding speeches by important personages,” as Connolly drily put it.)

At the same time, the entire Boston contingent had been enormously impressed by the drama of Louis’s marathon victory. To men like those at the BAA steeped in the classics, the idea of this struggle by one brave, determined runner against the distance had irresistible appeal. They were eager to import the myth to these shores.

Greece’s King George I presenting victory laurels to marathon hero Spiridon Louis.

Bettmann Archives

Greece’s King George I presenting victory laurels to marathon hero Spiridon Louis.

Almost a year after Louis ran triumphant into the stadium in Athens, the BAA was ready to hold what local newspapers were already calling “a Marathon.” The prime movers appear to have been John Graham, the BAA coach, and runner Tom Burke, the two-time Olympic medalist. Eventually, they and others measured a course that was the same distance as the Olympic Marathon — 24.5 miles — starting from the little town of Ashland.

The morning trains from Boston were packed with spectators on April 19, 1897, including a contingent of bicyclists who would accompany the runners to carry their clothes and attend to any medical needs. Many in the crowd planned to watch the start, then hop on a train back to the city to view the finish.

At 12:15 p.m., Burke scraped his foot across the narrow street and called the contestants’ numbers. There were 18 of them. At precisely 12:19, he yelled “Go!” and the runners took off as the spectators cheered lustily.

“All the contestants went away quickly,” wrote a reporter for the Globe. “But after going about fifty yards, they seemed to realize that they had just twenty-five miles of hard road ahead of them, and settled into a comfortable jog.”

A view of the Olympic stadium in Athens.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A view of the Olympic stadium in Athens.

Dick Grant, a track star at Harvard, was one of the early leaders, along with Hamilton Gray from New York. Benefiting from the cool, dry conditions of the day, they made good time, passing through Natick Center at 1:05 p.m. Running behind them patiently was John McDermott, a 22-year-old lithographer from New York.

As the runners headed into Wellesley, McDermott sensed the leaders faltering and closed in. At around the 12-mile mark, he caught them on a downhill stretch. Gray broke at that point and began walking. Grant tried to stay with the surging McDermott, but he, too, staggered to a stop and quit.

The first marathon through the eyes of the Globe.

Globe file/April 20, 1897

The first marathon through the eyes of the Globe.

McDermott — described in press accounts as a “little, dark, curly-haired young man” — seemed to get only stronger as he went along. “He was running like clockwork,” wrote one reporter. “His legs seemed to rise and fall like a phantom Greek, and his lithe body was bent just the least bit forward; his arms were at full length at his side, and his face was set with determination.”

However, just as he passed the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, McDermott’s left calf cramped up. Attendants swarmed around him, massaging it. He resumed running, continued a few feet, stopped again in pain. Finally the cramp was worked out, and as McDermott ran across Massachusetts Avenue, he cut through a funeral procession. Led by a vanguard of bicyclists, he continued up Exeter Street past the BAA clubhouse, outside of which hundreds of members had gathered to urge him on.

A crowd of 3,000 cheered as McDermott covered the final lap of the race at a now razed stadium in 40 seconds. “It was a wild scene at the finish,” read one account. “The oval track was swarming with excited fans wishing to take hold of McDermott.”

The plucky runner from New York had won the first BAA Marathon in 2:55:10, a time 10 seconds faster than Louis’s in Athens.

The Boston Marathon was here to stay.

MEET THE AUTHOR

John Hanc discusses the race and signs his new book at these free events:

APRIL 10, 7 P.M. Hopkinton High School, 90 Hayden Rowe Street, Hopkinton; with Marathon legend Bill Rodgers

APRIL 12, 7 P.M. Harvard Coop, 1400 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, thecoop.com

APRIL 13, 1 P.M. John Hancock Sports & Fitness Expo, Hynes Convention Center, Room 200, 900 Boylston Street, Boston; with race director Dave McGillivray

John Hanc is the author of 12 books, including The Coolest Race on Earth. He teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology and will run the 2013 Boston Marathon. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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