High Hurdles and White Gloves

The first modern Olympic games took place in Athens sixty years ago in a stadium holding seventy-five thousand. The American hurdler Thomas P. Curtis won the Gold Medal in his event; he also found time to make notes of what happened.

The Olympic stadium in Athens in 1896 (Hulton Archive / Getty)

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.

Apropos of the Greek Threat it is only fair to add that Greece, as a nation, knew very little about modern track and field sports. They had imported an English trainer named Perry shortly before the games. In the sprints, the middle, and the long-distance runs, he could give them useful hints on form and condition, but the pole vault and the hurdles and high jump were too difficult for satisfactory results from any such athletic "cramming." The Greek hopes—aside from those of my hotel proprietor—centered on two events, the discus and the marathon run. For the first they had the classic example of the Discobolus to study and analyze, and for the second they had the equally classic precedent of Pheidippides, who had run over almost identically the same course to death and immortal glory.

In the discus they were doomed to disappointment by a performance which illustrates as well as anything else the naivete of the contests. We had on our team a Princeton representative, Robert Garrett, a very powerful, long-armed athlete who had never seen a discus, let alone thrown one, but who decided to enter the event just for the sport of it. When the moment came, the Greek champion assumed the attitude of the Discobolus, which incidentally is a very trying and complicated attitude, and proceeded to make three perfect throws in the classic manner.

Garrett, with no knowledge of form or of how to skim the awkward discus, caused infinite merriment by running up to the mark and completely flubbing his first two attempts. On his third attempt, aided by his great strength, great length of arm, and an enormous amount of good luck, he succeeded in "sailing" the discus to a new record, beating the champion by almost a foot. This was a tragedy for Greece, but high comedy for us.

I think it was on the third or fourth day of the games that the Americanization of Europe began. Our team sat in a box not far from that of the King, and whenever the circumstances seemed to call for it, such as a win for the United States or a particularly good performance, We gave the regular B.A.A. cheer, which consisted of "B.-A.-A.— Rah! Rah! Rah!" three times, followed by the name of the individual performer who had evoked it. This cheer never failed to astonish and amuse the spectators. They had never heard organized cheering in their lives. During one of the intervals between events we were much surprised to see one of King George's aides-de-camp, an enormous man some six feet six tall, walk solemnly down the track, stop in front of us, salute, and say: "His Majeste, ze King, requests zat you, for heem, weel make once more, zat fonnee sound." We shouted "B.-A.-A.—Rah! Rah! Rah!" three times and then ended up with a mighty "Zito Hellas!" whereupon the King rose and snapped into a salute and everyone applauded vigorously.

King George was much intrigued by this barbarian custom. When we breakfasted with him the day after the completion of the games, he asked us to cheer in the middle of breakfast. If we had only known then about the movies and Hollywood and Henry Ford and mass production, we might have considered ourselves the advance agents of Americanization, and committed suicide.

When we left Athens, more than a hundred undergraduates of the University were at the station and gave us an organized cheer in Greek—such as never was heard before on sea or land. It was a pity that a group of Elis were not there to respond with the Frog Chorus—"Brek-ek-kek, co-ax, co-ax"— but probably the Greeks would not have understood it, Greek though it claims to be.

On the whole, our team did very well. William Hoyt won the pole vault, Ellery Clarke the high jump and broad jump, Tom Burke the 100 meters and 400 meters. I won the high hurdles, and Arthur Blake was second in, I think, the 1500 meters. Our finest performances were by the two sons of General Paine of Boston, Sumner and John, who won the revolver and pistol contests against the pick of the military and civilian shots of Europe. These were really outstanding achievements.

For the aquatic events we had on our team a very fast short-distance swimmer, who had won many races in warm American swimming pools. He journeyed to the Piraeus on the day of the first swimming competition blissfully ignorant that even the Mediterranean is bitterly cold in the month of April.

He had traveled 5000 miles for this event, and as he posed with the others on the edge of the float, waiting for the gun, his spirit thrilled with patriotism and determination. At the crack of the pistol, the contestants dived headfirst into the icy water. In a split second his head reappeared. "Jesu Christo! I'm freezing!"; with that shriek of astonished frenzy he lashed back to the float. For him the Olympics were over.

The Greek people, from high to low, treated us with great courtesy and friendliness. Sometimes their kindness was embarrassing. If we had won an event, our return to our quarters would be attended by admiring followers shouting "Nike"—"Victory!" Shopkeepers would herd us into their shops and invite us to help ourselves to their wares gratis. One merchant successfully insisted on each of us taking three free neckties. Gazing on their color and design, I saw a new meaning in the phrase timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. But the whole thing was so simple, so naive, that in spite of our amusement we were touched and pleased.

On the last day of the games, Greece came into her own. Loues, a Greek donkey boy, led all the other contestants home in the great marathon. As he came into the stretch, a hundred and twenty-five thousand people went into delirium. Thousands of white pigeons, which had been hidden in boxes under the seats, were released in all parts of the stadium. The handclapping was tremendous. Every reward which the ancient cities heaped on an Olympic victor, and a lot of new ones, were showered on the conqueror, and the games ended on this happy and thrilling note.

We stayed on in Athens for about ten days of entertainment and merrymaking. I recall especially a great reception at Mme. Schliemann's and also a picnic in the Vale of Daphne, which the Crown Prince, later King Constantine, and his brother, Prince George, attended. Their Royal Highnesses were extremely interested in learning how American baseball was played. We explained to them the functions of the pitcher, catcher, infielders, and outfielders and the theory of running bases.

Nothing would do, however, except a demonstration, and as the picnic yielded little in the way of paraphernalia, we were obliged to demonstrate with a walking stick and an orange. We appointed Prince George pitcher and the Crown Prince catcher, and, for my sins, I was named batter. At the first orange pitched, I struck not wisely but too well, and the stick cut the orange in halves, both of which the Crown Prince caught on the bosom of his best court uniform. He was a good sport and joined in the somewhat subdued laughter, but I think the Americanization of Greece ended right there.