Halfway through a chilly, grey afternoon in April 1896, the opening day of the inaugural modern Olympic Games in Athens arrived at its first dramatic turn. As he readied himself to go, the last competitor in the hop, step and jump, an Irish-American called James Brendan Connolly, made his way to the landing pit.
Confused by the measurement system in use and baffled by the language of the judges, Connolly wanted to see the exact point which the leader, Alexandre Tuff’eri, had reached. Establishing the mark that his French rival had set, he flung his cap down a yard past it, a makeshift target at which he would aim.
Connolly walked back up the runway with the 50,000 Greeks who had been shoehorned into the Panathenian Stadium jeering his bravado. A headwind blowing in his face, he stood at the top of the track and muttered a prayer to himself, before spitting on his hands in the manner of a horse trader making a deal at market, and announcing to the bemused gallery of European royalty: “Here’s one for the honor of the County Galway.” And then, he set off, hopping, stepping and jumping 44 feet, 11 3/4 inches, staying airborne long enough to sail past his own headgear and become the first Olympic champion in over 1,500 years.
“It’s a miracle,” the crowd cried. “It’s a miracle,” their disposition changing in an instant to acknowledge the feat of athleticism they had just witnessed. As the band struck up the first notes of the “Star Spangled Banner,” Connolly was already getting dressed, only realizing the anthem was in his honor when he saw the American flag being raised. On his way from the field, he was engulfed by smitten locals, and even in the bathhouse afterward, the attendants dried him off while repeatedly chorusing “Nike, Nike,” the Greek word for victory.
Three decades before their son made his entry in the record books and secured Galway’s unique place in Olympian folklore, Sean Connolly and Aine O’Donnell departed Inis Mor in the Aran Islands for a life in the New World. Fetching up in Boston, they settled in the Irish enclave south of the city, and Sean found work in that bustling port’s fishing fleet. James Brendan was born in 1868, Nov. 25, to be precise. From an early age, he was taken out in boats by his father and his Uncle Jim O’Donnell, the experience nurturing a love of the high seas that was to become perhaps the defining relationship of his life.
Connolly left school at 15. His mother implored him to find work away from the water, and he went through a succession of jobs over the next decade. In a remarkable achievement for any Catholic of that era, especially the son of Irish immigrants, he was accepted into Harvard University’s School of Engineering in 1895. He found the academic going tough during his freshman year, his focus not helped that first winter by constant talk in the local papers about the forthcoming Olympic Games in Greece. National champion in the hop, step and jump, he was an obvious candidate for the revived competition.
“Life in Harvard was alright, but not exactly thrilling,” Connolly wrote later in his autobiography, “whereas a sailing across the wide Atlantic through the Gibraltar Straits and so to the port of Pir’us where Homer must have landed on his way to Athens was certainly a better way of passing what should be pleasant afternoons than trying to chamfer a block of cold steel with a chisel.”
When the university authorities refused to grant him two months leave to pursue his athletic ambition, he resigned his place. The official archive at Harvard records his departure thus: “Withdrew March 19, 1896. Reason: To Visit Europe.” Connolly’s own account is slightly more theatrical, claiming that he ended a meeting with the dean by saying: “I’m going to the Olympics and I’m through with Harvard, now good day to you, sir.” More than half a century later, he was invited back on campus to receive an honorary degree.
His passage on the Fulda, the tramp steamer carrying the other 10 American athletes from New York to Naples, was financed by his club, Suffolk Athletic, and denizens of his parish in South Boston. His compatriots passed the time aboard working out to keep in shape, but a back injury meant Connolly spent much of the two-week journey across the Atlantic sitting in a deck chair until proclaiming on sight of Gibraltar “that every pain and ache is gone and I feel as loose as ashes.”
More than once, the Americans’ 5,000-mile expedition almost came unstuck. In Naples, Connolly’s wallet was stolen, and a protracted police investigation nearly caused him to miss the next leg of their odyssey. With the Neapolitan constabulary wanting him to stay and testify in court against the thief, he had to literally outrun the officers in order to catch the train carrying his teammates onward to Brindisi. Even when they subsequently arrived in Athens, there was to be one more twist of fate.
In recognition of the distance the Americans had traveled, the Greeks laid on a feast to welcome them. Though battling exhaustion, the squad embraced the festive mood and partied into the small hours. It was only when they were woken next morning to the sound of passing parades that Connolly and the rest realized that the games were beginning that very afternoon. Their failure to properly grasp the 12 days difference between the Julian (Greek) and the Gregorian (Western) calendars meant there would be no time for them to acclimatize or recover from their voyage.
Under those circumstances, Connolly’s prodigious performance in the discipline that would later become known as the triple jump was all the more notable. The following afternoon, he finished a credible third in the long jump, and completed the full set of honors with a second place in the high jump on the final day of competition. He surrendered his Olympic title when finishing second at the Paris games in 1900, but by then his life away from sport was beginning to take on a particularly epic tinge.
Just two years after Athens, he fought in the Spanish-American War with the Irish 9th Infantry of Massachusetts, his dispatches from the conflict published in the Boston Globe as “Letters from the Front in Cuba.” Having forged an excellent reputation as a journalist, he wrote more than 25 novels, mostly to do with seafaring, while still finding time to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress in 1912 and to serve as an American emissary in Ireland for a turbulent spell in the 1920s. A close personal friend of Teddy Roosevelt, the former president once said of him: “If I were to pick one man for my sons to pattern their lives after, I would choose Jim Connolly.”
In 1983, 26 years after his death, a bronze sculpture was erected in Connolly’s memory at Columbus Park, near the Southie neighborhood in Boston where he grew up. The monument shows him, arms extended, legs bent beneath, and face contorted with effort. His life remembered at its zenith, the perfect study of a man leaping into history.