Athlete, author and Knight of Columbus James B. Connolly was the first to win in the modern Olympic Games.
One of the most distinguished — and improbable — victories in Olympic history occurred 120 years ago, when James B. Connolly won the first event of the 1896 Olympic Games. A feisty and energetic 27-year-old son of poor Irish immigrants from South Boston, Connolly became the first Olympic champion in more than 1,500 years.
Abolished in 393 A.D. by Emperor Theodosius I, the Olympic Games lay dormant until their 1896 revival by Pierre de Coubertin, a French nobleman. As Europeans were expected to dominate all the events, the United States fielded only a dozen athletes, mainly Harvard and Princeton men. To qualify, all the Americans had to do was fill out an entry form and pay their way across the ocean. Connolly, the American record holder in the triple jump, was determined to join the team of ’96.
One of 12 children and the sixth of 10 sons, Connolly was born Oct. 28, 1868. His father was a fisherman, while his mother raised the children and translated Gaelic poetry. Though he never completed high school, Connolly was a man of boundless enterprise and imagination. After working as a clerk in a Boston insurance company, he joined the Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah, Ga., where he founded a Catholic sports club, wrote a sports column for a weekly newspaper and established a bicycling business. In 1890, he won the national triple jump championship. Bright but uneducated, he took Harvard’s entrance exam in 1895 and was accepted to study in the fall.
Source: The First Olympic Champion