Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book Review: IGNITING THE FLAME: AMERICA'S FIRST OLYMPIC TEAM by Jim Reisler (Lyons Press, 2012)

Yes, I've got the Olympics on my mind, and I've just finished another worthwhile read delving into the modern Games' frequently strange and curious past.  This time around, the focus is on the 14 young men who formed the American team for the 1896 Athens Olympics.  Though these fellows rated a TV mini-series not so long ago, author Reisler goes that fictionalized effort one better by coupling the story of the recruitment, travels, and triumphs of the U.S. contingent to a quick survey of the development of the modern Olympic movement and the role that American academics, in particular, played in organizing the team and encouraging its participation.  In the late 19th century, thanks to the opening of such schools as Johns Hopkins, MIT, and the University of Chicago, American higher education was trending towards the sciences and other "modern" fields, but classical scholars were still a substantial presence on the typical campus. Some, such as Princeton's William Milligan Sloane, the first president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, jumped at the chance to assist the Greeks in their revival of the ancient Games.  To be sure, some of Sloane's peers were less than enthusiastic about allowing their athletes to go off on what was seen as a purposeless junket; James Connolly, the modern Games' first champion, actually had to drop out of Harvard, never to return, after his request for time off was denied.

The somewhat ramshackle, ad hoc nature of the first modern Olympics is exemplified by American Robert Garrett shockingly winning the discus competition over two Greeks... after having started practicing with the regulation Olympic discus just the day before.  Garrett's victory, however, was one of the key events that cemented a bond of friendship between the enthusiastic American athletes and the Athenians who attended and supported the Games.  The Greeks were especially pleased that the Americans' participation kept the 1896 Games from being an all-European affair.  Despite being skunked in most of the track-and-field events, the Greeks famously got one back on the Americans when Spiridon Louis won the inaugural marathon.  Political disagreements and spats born of envy were conspicuous by their absence, however, and the goodwill fostered by the 1896 Games helped sustain the Olympics during the lean decade that followed, until the events of London 1908 put the Games on solid footing for good (albeit also putting bitter national rivalries in style).  The modern Olympics may never have been truly pristine or innocent, but Athens 1896 was as close as they ever got to being so, and the Americans played no small role in making it happen.

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