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The '96 Olympics

August 8, 1996

Thirty-six years after participating in the first modern Olympic games -- in Athens, Greece, in 1896 -- the hurdler Thomas P. Curtis looked back at his experiences and sifted through some of his general impressions. In "High Hurdles and White Gloves" (originally published in The Sportsman in 1932 and later published in the December, 1956, issue of The Atlantic Monthly), Curtis characterized the 1896 Olympics as an occasion of high-spirited conviviality among members of cultures unaccustomed to contact with one another. Competition, he suggested, came second to the spirit of adventure and fun that came of journeying by boat to a distant land with a group of fellow athletes.

The selection process for participation in the 1896 games bore little resemblance to today's. Curtis described the way in which he and his teammates were chosen:

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 . . . . That was all there was to it.

The athletes competed the morning after having been treated by their Greek hosts to "several noggins of resinous wine." Though he had been warned the night before of the daunting prowess of the Greek hurdler who would be a participant in his event, upon actually racing him, Curtis found that the man posed no threat whatsoever because "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 . . . . It is only fair to add that Greece, as a nation, knew very little about track and field sports."

Though Curtis himself won the gold medal in his event, one of his fellow Americans on the swim team did not fare so well:

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.

Following the games the Americans stayed on in Greece for "ten days of entertainment and merrymaking" during which they taught the Crown Prince of Greece and his family how to play baseball -- using an orange and a walking stick.

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Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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