A London dozen books: Rewind 116 years, to 14 Ivy Leaguers and a crazy trip to Athens


The book: “Igniting the Flame: America’s First Olympic Team”

The author: Jim Reisler

The publishing info: Lyons Press, 285 pages, $24.95

Find it: At Powells or Barnes & Noble

The background: The U.S. team for the 1896 Games in Greece consisted of 14 men. Most of them Ivy Leaguers. All who paid their own way to compete.

James Connolly of the Suffolk Athletic Club and Harvard won the triple jump, the first U.S. gold ever and the first Olympic champion in 1,500 years, since it was the first event finished in these Modern Games.

Robert Garrett of Princeton won the discus. He had never done it before. He also won the shot put, was runner-up in the long jump and third in the high jump. They didn’t have the backing of the AAU or their own schools, but went to Athens anyway.

Thomas Burke won the 100 and 400 meters. Ellery Clark took the long jump and high jump. Sumner Paine won the Free Pistol, with John Paine taking the 25-Meter Military Revolver. Thomas Curtis won the 100m high hurdles. William Hoyt took the pole vault.

Albert Tyler (pole vault), Arthur Blake (1,500 meters and marathon), Herbert Jamison (400 meters), Francis Lane (100 meters), Charles Waldstein (shooting) and
Gardner Williams (swimming) were also there.

For the record.

From page 219: “So how best to measure the contributions of America’s first and most unlikely Olympic team? For starters, their success ensured that America would never again have trouble fielding a team. It would be years before U.S. sports authorities put together any kind of organized trials, meaning athletes or their schools had to continue to find their ways to get to the Games.

“But thanks to its first team, America would forever field a group of athletes with a thirst to get there, often at considerable sacrifice or expense. …

“The 1962 film, ‘It Happened in Athens,’ could have helped revive their accomplishments, but it didn’t. The 20th Century Fox production was essentially a vehicle for bombshell Jayne Mansfield, who became the love interest of Spridon Louis. Leonard Maltin (called it) a ‘silly, juvenile charade made somewhat watchable by Mansfield in a variety of revealing costumes,’ while the film did also star Bob Mathias as John Graham, of all people (Graham was a track coach).

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