James Connolly (athlete)

From Academic Kids

For the Irish labor leader, see James Connolly (nationalist)

James Brendan Bennet Connolly (October 28, 1868January 20, 1957) was an American athlete and author. In 1896, he became the first modern Olympic champion.

Connolly with the American flag after his victory in Athens.
Connolly with the American flag after his victory in Athens.

Early life

James Connolly was born to poor Irish American parents, fisherman John Connolly and Ann O'Donnell, as one of twelve children, in South Boston, Massachusetts. Growing up at a time when the parks and playground movement in Boston was slowly developing, Connolly joined other boys in the streets and vacant lots to run, jump, and play ball.

He was educated at Notre Dame Academy and then at the Mather and Lawrence grammar school, but never went to high school. Instead, Connolly worked as a clerk with an insurance company in Boston and later with the United States Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah, Georgia.

His predisposition to sport also became apparent. Calling a special meeting of the Catholic Library Association (CLA) of Savannah in 1891, he was instrumental in forming a football team. Soon thereafter, Connolly was elected captain of the CLA Cycling Club and aggressively sought to promote the sport on behalf of the Savannah Wheelmen.

Altogether dissatisfied with his career path, Connolly sought to regain the lost years of high school through self education. In October 1895, he sat for the entrance examination to the Lawrence Scientific School and was unconditionally accepted to study the classics at Harvard University.

The Olympic Games

After the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894, the first modern edition of the Olympic Games were scheduled for April 6 to 15, 1896 in Athens, Greece. Connolly decided to participate, and submitted a request for a leave of absence to the Chairman of the Harvard University Committee on the Regulation of Athletic Sports and was denied. According to Connolly himself, he was informed that his only course of action would be to resign and make a reapplication to the College. Connolly then claimed to have replied:

"I am not resigning and Iím not making application to re-enter. Iím getting through with Harvard right now. Good day!"

It is unclear whether this really happenend. Harvard records do show a request by Connolly for a leave of absence to Europe, which was denied. Connolly then requested an honorable withdrawal as a student, which was granted on March 19, 1896.

Representing the Suffolk Athletic Club, which paid for most of Connolly's expenses (Connolly later claimed he paid it all himself), he left for Greece on a German freighter, the Barbarossa, along with most of the rest of the first American Olympic team. After arriving in Naples, Italy, where he was mobbed and almost lost his ticket to Athens. He managed to retrieve it only after a pursuit against the robber. Finally he took the train to Athens, arriving there just for the Games.

The first final on the opening day was the triple jump (then known as the hop, skip and jump), one of the events in which Connolly competed. Connolly's style, taking two hops with the right foot, is no longer allowed in this event nowadays, but was perfectly acceptable in 1896. With this style, he outjumped the field, finishing more than one meter ahead of his nearest opponent by jumping 13.71 m (44 ft 11 3/4 in), earning him the first silver medal (gold medals did not yet exist). With this performance, he became the first Olympic champion since 385 AD, when Athenian Zopyros won the pankration (other sources name the Armenian Varasdates, who won at boxing in 369).

He went on to take second place in the high jump (1.65 m / 5 ft 5 in), and third place in the long jump (6.11 m / 20 ft 1/2 in). Back home in Boston, Connolly was welecomed enthusiastically, and was presented a gold watch by the citizens of South Boston.

Connolly would also visit the second edition of the modern Olympics, held in Paris. There, he failed to retain his title in the triple jump, losing to compatriot Meyer Prinstein.


The 1904 Summer Olympics were also attended by Connolly, but as a journalist, not as an athlete. Earlier, he had already published his accounts of the Spanish-American War in the Boston Globe as Letters from the front in Cuba. He served there in the Irish 9th Infantry of Massachusetts.

Connolly became an authority on maritime writing, after spending years on many different vessels, fishing boats, military ships all over the world. In all, he published more than 200 short stories, and 25 novels. Furthermore, he twice ran for Congress of the United States on the ticket of the Progressive Party, but never was elected.

He never returned to Harvard, but received an honorary athletic sweater in 1948. A year later, he was offered an honorary doctorate by Harvard University, which he turned down. Connolly died in New York at the age of 88. A collection of items related to Connolly, including his triple jump silver medal, is housed in the library of Colby College in Maine.


  • Seaborne: Thirty years avoyaging, by James B. Connolly, 1944.
  • The first Olympic champion, by Rusty Wilson, 2000. Appeared in the Journal of Olympic History, January 2000 [1] (
  • The unexpected Olympians - How Harvard dominated the first modern games - in spite of itself, by Jonathan Shaw, 1996. Appeared in Harvard Magazine, January 1996. [2] (http://www.harvardmagazine.com/issues/ja96/olympian.html)
  • "The English as poor losers" and other thoughts on the modernization of sport. The literary works of James Brendan Connolly, by Ralph C. Wilcox, 1997. Appeared in The Sports Historian, May 1997. [3] (http://www.rms-republic.com/connolly.html)

External links

hr:James Connolly it:James Connolly


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