THE way our U.S. team was selected for those first modern Olympic games held at Athens in 1896 would seem extraordinary to an athlete of 1932. In effect we selected ourselves. When an invitation was received in this country, asking the United States to send representatives to Greece, the powers of the Boston Athletic Association went into a huddle and decided that the B.A.A. had a pretty good track team which had met with reasonable success at home and that the Association could afford to send a group of seven athletes and a coach to the first Olympiad. Princeton University also decided to send over a small team, and as the amateur standing of all was satisfactory, that was all there was to it. Naive? Yes, but so was the whole idea, which had blossomed in the brain of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. So were the competitors and so were the spectators. So were most of the governments which sent representatives to Athens, and so were many of the incidents, which seem just as funny today as they did at the time, perhaps even more so, in view of modern developments.
We sailed by the southern route to Naples, passing the Azores, and we kept in condition as well as we could by exercising on the afterdeck. At Gibraltar the British officers invited us to use their field for practice, and we managed to get rid of our sea legs to a certain extent. But when we arrived at Athens on the day preceding the opening of the games—after crossing Italy by train, spending twenty-four hours on the boat from Brindisi to Patras, and then crossing Greece by train—we were not exactly in what today's Olympic coaches would call the pink.
Nor did our reception at Athens, kind and hospitable as it was, help. We were met with a procession, with bands blaring before and behind, and were marched on foot for what seemed miles to the Hotel de Ville. Here speech after speech was made in Greek, presumably very flattering to us, but of course entirely unintelligible. We were given large bumpers of the white-resin wine of Greece and told by our advisors that it would be a gross breach of etiquette if we did not drain these off in response to the various toasts. As soon as this ceremony was over, we were again placed at the head of a procession and marched to our hotel. I could not help feeling that so much marching, combined with several noggins of resinous wine, would tell on us in the contests the following day.
My doubts were deepened on meeting the proprietor of our hotel. He asked me in what events I was going to compete, and when I named particularly the high hurdles, he burst into roars of laughter. It was some time before he could speak, but when he had calmed down enough, he apologized and explained that it had seemed to him inexpressibly droll that a man should travel 5000 miles to take part in an event which he had no possible chance to win. Only that afternoon, the Greek hurdler in practice had hung up an absolutely unbeatable record.
With a good deal of anxiety, I asked him what this record was. He glanced around guiltily, led me to a corner of the room, and whispering in my ear like a stage conspirator, said that the record was not supposed to be made public but that he had it on unimpeachable authority that the Greek hero had run the hurdles in the amazing time of nineteen and four-fifths seconds!
Again he was overcome with mirth but recovered to say that I should not be too discouraged, perhaps I might win second place. As I had never heard of anyone running the high hurdles, 110 meters, in such amazingly slow time, I decided that I should not take the mental hazard of the Great Greek Threat too seriously.
One of the British hurdlers, however, was more disturbing. He had quite a number of medals hung on his waistcoat, and these he insisted on showing me. "You see this medal," he would say. "That was for the time I won the championship of South Africa. This one here was from the All-England games" — and so on. He was perfectly certain that he would win the Olympic event, but he, too, consoled me with the possibility of my taking second place. I never met a more confident athlete.
THE next day the games opened in a superb stadium, gift of a wealthy and patriotic Greek, built of Pentelic marble and seating seventy-five thousand spectators. Around and above it, on three sides, rose bare hills, which provided free space for the local deadheads—a sort of Athenian Coogan's Bluff. In building the stadium the Greeks had unearthed four statues which had marked the turns in the ancient Athenian games held on the same site, and these were now installed at the four turns of the new cinder track for the first Olympic revival. The track, by the way, was well intended and well built, but it was soft, which accounted in part for the slow times recorded. After the opening ceremonies before the King and Queen, the taking of the Olympic oath, and the lighting of the Olympic torch, we proceeded to business.
The first event was a trial heat in the 100-meter dash. Entered in the heat with me were a German, a Frenchman, an Englishman, and two Greeks. As we stood on our marks, I was next to the French man, a short, stocky man. He, at that moment, was busily engaged in pulling on a pair of white kid gloves, and having some difficulty in doing so before the starting pistol. Excited as I was, I had to ask him why he wanted the gloves. "Ah-ha!" he answered, "zat is because I run before ze Keeng!"
Later, after the heat was run, I asked him in what other events he was entered. He was in only two, "ze cent metre and ze marathon," to me a curious combination. He went on to explain his method of training. "One day I run a leetle way, vairy queek. Ze next day, I run a long way, vairy slow."
I remember the last day of the games. The marathon had been run. All the other runners who finished had completed the race. The King and Queen had left, and the stadium was about to be closed for the night. And then, all alone, the little Frenchman came jogging into the stadium, running "vairy slow," and passed in front of the empty thrones of the Royal Box, wearing his little white kid gloves, even though "ze Keeng" was not there to see them.
When it came to the high hurdles, I learned how the Greek Threat had managed to spend nineteen and four-fifths seconds in covering the distance. It was entirely a matter of technique. His method was to treat each hurdle as a high jump, trotting up to it, leaping, and landing on both feet. At that, given the method, his time was really remarkable.
In the finals I met the confident Britisher who was, in fact, a better hurdler than I. However, he was not so fast on the ground, and I beat him in the stretch, whereupon he stopped neither to linger nor to say farewell, but went from the stadium to the station and took the first train out of Athens.