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Olympic games of an elder day

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An account by Thomas P. Curtis, MIT Class of 1894 and Olympian
From MIT's alumni magazine, Technology Review, July 1924

A repetition of the Olympic Games is taking place this summer in Paris, and it is amusing to an old timer to look back and compare the situation twenty-eight years ago, when the games were first revived, with the elaborate program of the present day. Although the public interest at that time, particularly in European countries, was great, in the United States the revival was but little advertised, little understood, and owing to these facts and to the great distance which had to be traversed by competing athletes, only two athletic bodies in this country sent representative teams. One was sent by Princeton University; the other was sent by the Boston Athletic Association. The decision to send this latter team was reached only at the last moment and our little party, of which I was a member, left Boston less than two weeks before the opening event in which we were to compete. Such a condition today would, of course, be impossible. Months and months are given over to preparing the various athletes, entries are made far ahead of the time of competition, and the games, themselves besides being of much larger proportions, are also carried on over a much longer period of time.

Of course, the Games as held today, particularly when the competition takes place in cities other than Athens, lose all of the romance which so strongly flavored the first revival, and become vast international meetings, differing but slightly from any local intercollegiate competition of this country, except for the different nationalities involved and the large number of competitors.

In the sports held at Athens in 1896, the records made were not particularly good as compared with the modern marks, largely due to the soft track in the Stadium, which had not been entirely completed, but there was a romance and a novelty connected with them that is hard to describe. This side of it appealed particularly to those of us who had dabbled in the classics and could allow our imaginations to repeople the historic spots with the heroes of old. Our trip was filled with amusing instances, and I wish that I had kept a diary from which I could refresh my memory.

It was late in March, 1896, that our little party consisting of E. H. Clark, T. E. Burke, Arthur Blake, W. W. Hoyt, myself, and our trainer, John Graham, the athletic mentor of the B. A. A., sailed from New York on the North German Lloyd Steamship Fulda for Naples, from which point we were to continue to Athens by train and boat as fast as possible.

Although the steamer was carrying its full complement of passengers (and of course deck room was at a premium), we were accorded every possible facility for practicing and keeping in training. The rear deck was cleared daily at about 3 p.m. and for an hour or more we practiced our different events. On the morning of the eighth day we reached Gibraltar, where we were to have four hours ashore, so while the other passengers hired carriages, guides, etc., and spent their time in sight-seeing, we took our spiked shoes and other paraphernalia, and visited the racing park belonging to the English officers stationed there.

By these means we were able to keep in good condition during the entire voyage, and on landing at Naples, a few days later, we were all in the best of training. Training, however, for athletic sports was hardly at the same standard in any of the European countries that it had reached in the United States. I will never forget a stockily built, curly-haired Frenchman whom we encountered on our way from Brindisi to Patras. He confided to me that he was entered in two events, one, the 100-meter dash, and the other the 26-mile Marathon race. He was filled with enthusiasm about both events, and stated very naively that he firmly expected to win one and possibly both. It is difficult to imagine the kind of training he must have been through, but while he was game to the core, he was not successful, as events proved.

From Naples the trip did not last long, fortunately for us, and after a day's run down the Italian coast, and a short stop at the Island of Corfu, we reached Athens on Sunday, April 5, the day before the games were to begin. To our complete surprise we were met at the railroad station by crowds of people accompanied by two bands of musicians and a committee from the Mayor's office. We were greeted most enthusiastically and were immediately formed in line, with one band ahead and one behind, and marched on foot from the railroad station to the City Hall through crowds of people. At the City Hall we found a banquet awaiting us. Speeches were made by the Mayor and other city officials, and great surprise was shown at our hesitation in drinking great bumpers of white wine which were forced upon us. We finally got away as diplomatically as we could, and upon completion of the ceremonies we were again formed in line, with our accompanying bands, and marched to our hotel near the park, which fronted the Royal Palace. The idea that this form of reception was, perhaps, not the best thing for athletic training, never seemed to occur to the local authorities, but can anyone imagine such a situation in these modern times.

The next morning we took carriages and drove to the huge Stadium in which the Games were to take place that afternoon, and after a short survey of the condition of the track, etc., we returned to be rubbed down and to prepare for the work of the afternoon.

Athens presented a splendid appearance. It was a small city built of very white houses, with white streets, white sidewalks and white everything, and with that background the thousands upon thousands of flags of every color and kind showed out in striking contrast, making the city seem almost like a huge kaleidoscope. Crowds paraded the streets daily with bands, cheering, shouting, and yelling. All business was at a standstill, and during the actual time that the Games were taking place not a shop or business place of any kind was open.

At a little before two o'clock in the afternoon we drove to the dressing rooms just beyond the Stadium and at two sharp appeared in running clothes in the Stadium itself, just as the Games were about to commence. The sight that met our eyes was one never to be forgotten. 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, all in the gayest of uniforms. A band of almost 200 pieces was playing in the center of the arena the National Anthems of Greece, and altogether the sight was most impressive. 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.

The first event on the program was the race of 100 meters in which both Burke and I were entered. There were 24 competitors coming from almost every European nation, and the sensation was an odd one. I was drawn in the first heat, in which were two Greeks, one Englishman, one German, one Frenchman, and myself. Next to me stood the Frenchman, and to my surprise I discovered he was the same stocky little man who had confided to me that he was going to compete in the 100-meter race and, also, in the Marathon event. To my surprise, also, while standing on our "marks," he was hastily engaged in drawing on a pair of white kid gloves, telling me that the reason he did so was, as he expressed it, "Becuz I am to run before ze Kink." He adopted these same tactics a few days later in the Marathon race and ran the entire 26 miles with a pair of white kid gloves on, only to find on reaching the Stadium some four hours after the crowd and Royal Family had left, that after all he did not, in that race at least, run before "ze Kink." It was quite pathetic. Burke and I both won our heats by narrow margins.

One of the most unexpected results occurred in the competition for throwing the discus. This form of athletic sport had been entirely confined to Greece from time immemorial, and no competitor from any other land was familiar with the rules covering the competition or with the proper method of handling the discus itself. Robert Garrett, the Captain of the Princeton Team, a powerful, long-armed athlete, decided to enter this event purely for the fun of it. All other competitors were Greeks, and to see the discus thrown as they handled it was to see grace personified. We are all familiar with the statue of the Discobolus, and the Greek competitors carefully followed the position shown in that work of art. Not so with Garrett, however, who seized the discus in his right hand and swinging himself around and around, the way the 16-pound hammer is usually thrown in this country, threw the discus with tremendous force. His first two attempts, however, were laughable, as the discus, instead of sailing parallel to the ground, turned over and over and narrowly missed hitting some of the audience. Both foreigners and Americans laughed at his efforts, he, himself, joining in the general merriment. On his third and last throw, however, he succeeded in getting the discus away perfectly and, to the chagrin of the Greek champion who had made three perfect throws in the most graceful manner possible, it was found that Garrett's throw exceeded by some two feet the best throw of any other man. I think no one was more surprised than Robert Garrett himself.

The other events that followed were full of interest but in this article I have not time or space to describe them in detail. These races were simply the trial heats and both this day and the succeeding three days were given up to weeding out the poorer men. Friday was the great day, the day on which the finals were to be run, and, above all, the day on which the great Marathon race was to take place.

One noticeable point was the total lack of organized cheering, which form of expression seems to be confined entirely to this country. Our team was assigned a box in the front row of the Stadium, some fifty feet from that of the King and Queen, and we gave at intervals the standard B. A. A. cheer whenever one of our number was successful in an event. We found we were listened to with a great deal of interest and surprise, so much so that when we had given no cheer for an hour or more the special aide of King George walked solemnly down from the Royal Box, stopped in front of our box, and touching his hat, said in the most solemn voice, "His Majesty, the Kink--requests--that for him--once more--you will make--that peculiar noise." This we promptly did--the King standing and touching his cap in acknowledgment.

After the Games were over, when taking breakfast with the King one morning, he again insisted that we should repeat the same cheer. It seemed to cause him great amusement and interest. You can imagine our surprise some week or ten days later when, on leaving Athens, we were met at the Railroad Station by the entire student body of the College at Athens, who, as our train pulled out, burst into what they considered a cheer in Greek similar to the one they had heard us give.

The Marathon race was one in which the Greeks took more interest than in any other and for which their athletes had been training a long time. It was run over the historical course from Marathon to Athens that was followed by the soldier in olden days who brought the news of the battle of Marathon to the Athenians. The course was about 42 kilometers, almost 26 miles, and the road was very rough and hilly the entire way. Men of every nationality were entered in this, as in the other races, and one woman wanted to compete, but was not allowed to start. The men were set off at two o'clock, each competitor followed by two soldiers on horseback.

In the meantime, the other events were progressing in the Stadium. In the finals, the Americans were singularly successful. The 100-meter finals came first, in which the first and second men in the trial heat were admitted. As this race came immediately before the finals in the hurdles, our trainer thought it unwise for me to enter, so I was kept out to concentrate all my energies on the next race.

Burke won by a foot with the German champion, Hofman, second; the Greek champion, Chalkocondules, third; and the American flag was promptly run up on the flagpole set near the entrance. This was done throughout the Games at the end of each contest, thereby enabling the spectators to tell the nationality of the winner, a thing that would have been otherwise almost impossible.

Next came the finals in the hurdle race. Only six men had been left from the trial heats, including a Frenchman, an Englishman, a Greek, and two Germans. The race was nip and tuck from start to finish, both the Englishman and myself clearing the tenth hurdle abreast. I beat him out in the stretch by a scant two feet. As this was the race I had come especially to run, and as I had heard great tales of the prowess of my opponent and his many victories in England, I breathed much more freely and was able to look at the other final contests with much greater pleasure.

Ellery Clark, who later became America's all-round champion athlete, accounted for two first prizes, winning both the high jump and the broad jump. Arthur Blake took second place in the 1500 meter event, giving the fleet Australian champion, Flack, the race of his life. Hoyt, the Harvard pole vaulter, beat his nearest competitor by three inches, and in the revolver and pistol events, John Paine and his brother, Sumner, who had entered as free-lances, won handily.

At about half past four a gun was heard--the signal that the first one of the Marathon runners had been sighted. The excitement was intense, everyone wondering whether the man was Greek, American, English or French. All contests then in progress were temporarily stopped to await the arrival of the winner. In the course of a few minutes a tremendous cheering was heard outside the gate of the Stadium, and a man in the dress of a Greek peasant ran up the steps and onto the track, making his way towards the King's throne, in front of which had been placed the finish line. His appearance showed the tremendous effort that he had made, and the fearful ordeal he had undergone. He was covered with dust and grime, the sandals that he wore on his feet were in rags, and his drawn face showed the strain he had suffered. His name was "Loues"" and he was a Greek donkey driver from the little town of Marousi.

As soon as the people were able to recognize him, the cheering and clapping of hands that broke forth was deafening. Hundreds of pigeons which had been kept concealed until then were set free, with Greek flags tied to their feet, hats were thrown in the air, the Crown Prince walked onto the track and congratulated Loues, and all the pent up enthusiasm that the Greeks had been saving up during the past six months for this very event, broke loose with a vengeance. It was almost a half-hour before any sort of peace was restored.

Of the other thirty competitors that entered this race, some fell out almost at once, others stood it until the twentieth mile, but only seven men finished, and the time made was really remarkable when the condition of the roads is taken into account. Our representative, Arthur Blake, was leading at the twelfth mile, but was unable to continue, owing to the conditions.

By winning this race, Loues won for himself everlasting glory throughout Greece. His name has been carved over the entrance to the Stadium, he was given 25,000 francs by an enthusiastic Greek banker, he succeeded in marrying his sweetheart, whom her father had hitherto kept from him on account of his poverty, and wherever he went he was received with shouts of welcome as the man who had vindicated the glory of Greece against the athletes of all the world.

One thing only remained to keep us in Athens after this, and that was the giving of the prizes. Once more the huge crowd assembled for a ceremony that proved to be most impressive. A platform had been put up at the end of the Stadium directly in front of the King's box, and on this were placed the prizes, which consisted of an olive branch cut from the sacred grove of Olympus, a large silver medal especially designed, and a diploma, consisting of a symbolic engraving giving the name of the winner, the race won, etc., in Greek letters.

The second men received a branch of laurel and a bronze medal. The successful competitors were drawn up in two lines on either side of the platform, winners on one side and second men on the other, while Captain Hadjipetro, the Aide-de-Camp of Prince George, called out in a stentorian voice the name of each man, his nationality, and the race that he had won.

As each man's name was called he ascended the steps of the platform and received from the King his prizes, after which the King shook hands with him and congratulated him. As soon as all had received their prizes, a procession of the victors was formed, and with Loues leading, carrying the Greek flag, we marched solemnly around the track amid the frantic cheers of the crowd, who at every wave of Loues' flag would shriek with joy. They were like children. As soon as the circuit was completed, the King advanced to the Crown Prince, and in the presence of everyone, kissed him on both cheeks, declaring in Greek that the Olympic Games of 1896 were over. After this, as soon as the King and Royal Family had withdrawn, the crowd dispersed and we were left to our own devices until the day should come on which we were to leave.

During the week following the Games, our American team was involved in continuous fetes. We were shown about the country by the three Princes, took dinner with them, went to dances and cotillions at the American Minister's, Russian Minister's, and elsewhere, and in our progress through the streets were greeted with cries of "Nike, Nike" [Victor]. Small shopkeepers insisted that we enter their stores and accept neckties, handkerchiefs, etc., for which they refused to accept payment, and which we were warned we should accept in order not to cause hurt feelings. This at times was very embarrassing.

We left on Friday, a week after the close of the Games, and our train in crossing Greece from Athens to Patros, was given a continuous ovation. We were met at each way-station by bands of music and crowds of people, our car was decorated with flags and ribbons, and on arriving at Patros, we were not allowed to move from the train until a procession had been formed with bands and boys carrying torches, which escorted us to the hotel. That night we sailed up the Adriatic to the Island of Corfu, where we had four hours ashore, and thence to Brindisi.

We arrived in Boston on May 7, after a trip of a little over seven weeks, a trip which I think few of us will ever forget.

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