The First Irish-American Olympic Champion
Born in South Boston Oct.28,1868, James Brendan Connolly was the 6th son of John Connolly and Ann O’Donnell from the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. At the age of 27 their son gave them a great sense of pride when he entered Harvard to study engineering. Although his formal education had not advanced beyond grade school, he tutored himself so well that Harvard accepted him as a freshman in 1895. Less than a year later, he dashed their high hopes by storming out of the university in a fit of pique. Education at a great academic institution was being tossed aside simply because he wanted to dart off for a couple of months on a crackpot adventure several thousand miles away.
His parents tried to dissuade him, but nothing would change his mind. So intent was he on competing at the revival of the ancient Olympic Games that he was prepared to travel to Athens at his own expense.
Before he learned of the Olympics, Connolly had proven himself a hard worker. He had set his heart on making enough money to study engineering at Harvard. So he worked on a harbor development project in Savannah, Georgia. Connolly supplemented his earnings by doing sports reporting for the Savannah Lamplight. He also captained the Savannah football team and helped the Suffolk athletic club from South Boston to win the United States amateur athletic championship. He himself won the national hop, step and jump title, later called the triple jump.
Some years previously he had read Chapman’s translation of Homer, and this led him to hope that someday he would visit Greece. This hope grew into a fixation the more he learned of the efforts of Baron de Coubertin to revive the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece. When this nobleman invited the youth of the world to Athens in 1896 to compete against each other in a spirit of friendly rivalry, Connolly decided that this opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games was one not to be missed, so he left Harvard.
He and the other American athletes arrived in Athens thinking they would have 12 days to practice. To their dismay, they learned that the Greeks had their own calendar and that the first Olympic Games of the modern era would be formally opened the next day. Even worse from Connolly’s viewpoint, was the news that immediately after the opening ceremony, his event, the triple jump, would commence the Games. The next day, the entrants were informed of the order in which they were to compete, and Connolly was the last on the list. So, when it came to his final attempt, he knew that unless he produced an exceptional final effort, first place would go to a Frenchman, Alexandre Tuffere, who had cleared 41’8”.
Another athlete may have choked under the pressure, but Connolly remained cool. As he himself later remarked, “I was standing between Prince George (later King George V) of England and Prince George of Greece, and the personal magnetism of these two gentlemen was so strong that I said, “Here’s to the honor of County Galway!” and I jumped.”
Before he actually jumped,he strode up to Tuffere”s mark and threw a cap a yard beyond it. This was a brazen thing to do in front of royalty and a packed stadium, but Connolly had not come so far nor endured so much to simply give a good account of himself. He walked back to his starting line, raced down the track and launched himself out to within a ¼ inch of 45 feet. James Brendan Connolly had become the first Olympic champion since Barasdates of Armenia won the boxing in 369 A.D.
After the Games, Connolly pursued a successful career as a writer back in the United States. He had found his vocation, writing stories about fishermen,boats and the sea. Story after story flowed from his pen as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
In 1904, he married Elizabeth Frances Hurley, and they had one child, Brenda. James Brendan Connolly died on Jan. 20, 1957, at the age of 88.
During his lifetime Connolly received many awards. Harvard offered him an honorary degree but , with his Irish dander still up, he refused it. However, in 1949, he returned to Harvard for a reunion of the class of 1899 with whom he would have graduated had he not gone to Athens.
Possibly the greatest tribute to Connolly came from Theodore Roosevelt who became impressed, not only with his writing, but with the man himself. The President said,”If I were to pick one man for my sons to pattern their lives after, I would choose Jim Connolly.”
This article was condensed from John Berkery’s story in June/July issue of Irish-America magazine by Larry McGrath
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