James Connolly (athlete)

James Brendan Bennet Connolly (October 28, 1868 - January 20, 1957 in New York) was an American athlete and writer. He was the first modern Olympic champion.


Connolly in Athens 1896.

James Connolly was born to Irish-Catholic parents, one of twelve children, in South Boston. 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. After completing his education first at Notre Dame Academy and then at the Mather and Lawrence grammar schools of his district, Connolly had spent time as a clerk with an insurance company in Boston and later with the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Savannah, Georgia. His predisposition to sport, and his impact on the community, soon 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-tutorial. 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.

Intent on competing in the revived Olympic Games to be held in Athens from April 6-15, 1896, Connolly 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. Informed that his only course of action would be to resign and make reapplication to the College, Connolly replied "I am not resigning and I'm not making application to re-enter on my return. I am through with this college right now. Good day."

He spent all his life savings on a ticket aboard a German freighter S.S. Fulda to Athens, where he competed in the first modern Olympics held in over 1527 years. He earned a place in modern Olympic history by winning the first gold medal of the games, taking first place in the triple jump (then called the Hop, Skip and Jump). According to a report filed by Boston Herald reporter Beverly Cronin, Connolly "walked up to the line, and with Prince George of England and Prince George of Greece as judges, yelled in a burst of emotion, 'Here's one for the honor of County Galway,' and then jumped 44 feet, 11 3/4" (13.71 m) that won him the title as the first modern Olympic victor." He later went on to take second place in the high jump (5'5" / 1.65 m), and third place in the long jump (20'01/2" / 6.11 m). Returning to defend the triple jump title at the Paris Exposition of 1900 Connolly came in second place.

After the Olympics Connolly embarked on an exciting life, traveling around the world, working on fishing docks, and fighting in the Spanish American War with the Irish 9th Infantry of Massachusetts. His accounts of the war were published in the Boston Globe as "Letters from the Front in Cuba." He became a prolific writer about the sea, and published over 200 short stores and 50 novels.

In 1949 he was offered an honorary doctorate by Harvard University, which he turned down. Connolly died in New York at the age of 88.

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