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The Unexpected Olympians

A Harvard rout at the first modern Olympic Games was far from President Charles William Eliot's mind on the chilly morning of March 4, 1896. Meeting with Le Baron Russell Briggs, dean of the College, Eliot had granted leave of absence to a single undergraduate athlete, senior Ellery H. Clark, so that he could compete in Athens that April. Though only an average student, Clark was an exceptional athlete. The fact that his father had been Eliot's classmate in the College probably didn't hurt, but the most important consideration for Eliot was that the man would be traveling under the banner of the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) and at the expense of several of its more patriotic members. There was, therefore, little danger that agonistic notoriety would attach itself to the good name of Harvard. The fact that the sponsoring B.A.A. members were also Harvard alumni was of no consequence. As far as the president was concerned, Harvard would not be sending a team to Athens.

Eliot had nothing against track and field sports in particular. In fact, he was a strong advocate of physical fitness. But he was barely tolerant of intercollegiate competition, and certainly had no desire to propagate an image of Harvard athleticism overseas.

Dean Briggs conveyed Eliot's sensitivities on the subject:

My dear Clark,

After consulting various persons [read Eliot, and perhaps others], I have decided to let you go to Greece. I understand that the absence will not be more than a month, and will include the spring recess. Of course you take your own risks so far as your courses are concerned.

May I ask you not to emphasize unduly the Harvard side of your athletic position. I am quite willing that the facts should be known; but I should not like an exaggeration of the facts. You go, as I understand it, in the capacity of a B.A.A. man, and the fact that you are a Harvard man is, so to speak, accidental.

Yours very truly,
L.B.R. Briggs

Whatever Eliot's opinion of this long-dormant pagan athletic ritual, he had at least guarded against the possibility that Clark would return from Athens cast as a modern media Hercules wearing a crimson letter sweater. Clark, for his part, was ecstatic. "I gave a shout that could have been heard, I believe, halfway to Boston," he later wrote. Two other Harvard undergraduates were not so lucky.

The first was 27-year-old freshman James B. Connolly. He and Clark had little in common except their athletic ability. Of Clark, Connolly once wrote, "He has the even, reliable, temperament that does not allow him to waste his power in single great efforts... In a two year's acquaintance, we never heard him indulge in a solitary exultant whoop of superiority, a thing which one might be disposed to allow a powerful athlete as a natural outburst of strong feeling." Connolly was himself a passionate Irishman from South Boston. Though he had dropped out of school at 15, Connolly was encouraged to apply to Harvard by Nathaniel Shaler, dean of the Lawrence Scientific School, with whom he carried on a lengthy correspondence. He passed four of five subjects on his entrance exam, allowing him to enter as a special student. He nevertheless struggled in his machine shop course, and was faced with the prospect of making up significant work over the summer ahead when he first heard about the Olympics. As Connolly himself put it, "Life at Harvard was all right, but not exactly thrilling; whereas a sailing across the wide Atlantic, through the Gibraltar Straits...and so to the port of Piraeus where Homer must have landed on his way to Athens-there was certainly a better way of passing what should be pleasant afternoons than trying to chamfer a block of cold steel with a chisel."

Pole vaulter, music lover, prevaricator William Welles Hoyt '98 in Athens.
Pole vaulter, music lover, prevaricator William Welles Hoyt '98 in Athens.
According to Connolly, he went to see the chairman of the Harvard athletic committee. "One peek at the chairman's puss told me that here was no friendly soul," Connolly wrote in his 1944 autobiography. "I piped down on any talk of violet-wreathed Athens, of marbled Athens, or the bard Homer chanting his sonorous periods.... I put in a bald request for eight weeks' leave of absence to compete in the Olympic games at Athens." The chairman's response, "You know you only want to go to Athens on a junket," suggests that Connolly may also have asked for financial support. The word "junket," in particular, would have set Connolly on fire. The gall of suggesting that all he wanted was a free ride to Athens! He was, after all, the national triple-jump (hop, step, and jump) champion, holder of the American record. The athletic committee chairman suggested that he resign, go to Athens, and then reapply on his return. Connolly withdrew from Harvard.

That's how Connolly remembered the incident 48 years later. It makes a good story, but is somewhat at odds with the truth, which Connolly made a lifelong habit of bending. Perhaps he did appeal to the chairman of the athletic committee to send a Harvard team. But there is no record of that. Just a letter dated March 18, 1896, three days before the ship for Athens was due to sail from New York:

Dear Sirs,

I respectfully ask approval for leave of absence from college from March 21 to May 2, 1896, inclusive.

I contemplate making a trip to Europe. The opportunity is before me to make the trip now at little expense to myself, an important consideration with me. I may never be in the position to take such a trip in later life. Inasmuch as I shall try to keep up my text book work while away, my work in shop only would suffer. This work could be made up next July, should I find myself in a position to return to college next Fall which in frankness I must say, seems improbable now. I consider that the educational advantages of such a trip would be of value to me.

Hoping to meet with your favorable attention, I submit myself,

Very respectfully yours,
J. B. Connolly

Dean Shaler was apparently unimpressed by the "educational advantages" of a trip to Europe. Connolly's request, with its suggestion that he would not return to Harvard that fall, and its failure even to mention the Olympics, was denied. So on March 20, Connolly wrote a second letter requesting that Shaler grant him leave to withdraw honorably as a student from Harvard University. This Shaler did. The official record reads: "Withdrew March 19, 1896. Reason: To visit Europe."

Connolly would travel under the auspices of the tiny Suffolk Athletic Club. "I was their entry and I was paying my own expenses," he later wrote. Actually, his Catholic parish in South Boston raised most of the money for the trip. Unlike Clark, Connolly could never have been part of the B.A.A. team. Despite its name, the Boston Athletic Association was in 1896 (according to its president at that time) not primarily an athletic club, but a social club that sponsored a variety of athletic events in the Boston area. Its membership was distinctly upper class. Clark's father was a member, as was the father of William Welles Hoyt, the third Harvard undergraduate to represent the United States at the games.

Hoyt was "not a strong character," according to the testimony of a former teacher. "Lacks purpose and will, probably from rather weak health. Vaults with a pole about eleven feet six inches, and has great love of music. Music may undo him." In the way Hoyt set about getting to the Olympics, he proved his former instructor both right and wrong. He never applied to Dean Briggs for a leave of absence. If not with strength of character, then at least with great purpose and will, the College sophomore feigned weak health and was able to resign "by the advice of Doctor Fitz and Doctor McIntire, who thought that a foreign trip would benefit me greatly." The fact that he was a stand-by for the B.A.A. team until someone contributed a last-minute $200, may have made him feel that deception was the simplest course. Hoyt withdrew on March 20, 1896.

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