Historical Vignette 058 - A Corps Employee was the 1st Olympic Gold Medalist

James Brendan Connolly (1868-1957) was the first winner of an Olympic Gold Medal, a veteran of the charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, candidate for Congress in 1911 (Progressive Party), and one of America’s foremost writers of maritime tales, having authored some 25 full-length works and more than 200 contributions to journals and newspapers. He also served with the Savannah District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Born in South Boston, Massachusetts, one of 12 children, Connolly came to Savannah in 1892 at the invitation of his brother Michael, who worked for the Savannah District and arranged a position for James. In the next three years, James served in various positions, including clerk, recorder of tidal and river current fluctuations, pile-driver inspector, and dredge inspector. Connolly liked the district engineer, Capt. Oberlin Carter, who moved Connolly to rivers and harbors work after he became bored with a clerk’s duties. Connolly enjoyed himself in Savannah, where he indulged in many athletic events, including track meets and football. He captained the Catholic Library Association football team to a 36-0 win over the Young Hebrew Association, scoring three touchdowns himself. For a while, he also wrote the sports column for a new weekly paper called the Lamplight.


First-place medalist James Connolly,
Athens, 1896

Courtesy IOC Olympic Museum


In 1895 Connolly was ready for new adventures. He had never graduated from high school but took correspondence courses for six months and, encouraged by Dean Nathaniel Shaler of Harvard University, passed Harvard's entrance examination in October 1895. He entered the university as a 27-year-old freshman but left it within a year—despite being told he might not be readmitted—to participate in the first modern Olympic games, held in Athens, Greece. Harvard's attitude offended him, and he never returned to complete his education there.

In Athens, Connolly won the gold medal (actually, silver medals were then awarded for first place) in the triple jump despite the fact that the triple jump in Athens was two hops and a jump rather than the hop, skip, and jump for which Connolly had trained and was the American champion. He threw his cap a yard beyond the mark set by his main competitor and then managed to leap even beyond the cap, just short of 13.5 meters, a mark that was short of his personal best and also of the world record he would set later that year. It was the first first-place medal awarded in modern Olympic history. Connolly also won second place in the high jump and third place in the long jump.

Some fifty years later, Harvard awarded Connolly a Harvard sports letter, perhaps a belated apology for not encouraging him to return to finish his education. By that time, he was a well-known author (even having lectured on literature at Harvard), war correspondent, novelist, and short-story writer. But his own autobiography testifies to those halcyon and no doubt formative years that he spent as a young man in Savannah.



This statue and plaque in South Boston honor
James Brendan Connolly's athletic achievements

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October 2002