The unusual story of the first Modern Olympic champion

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On April 6, 1896, a Harvard student overcame a ridiculous set of circumstances to become the first Modern Olympic champion.

James Connolly, a 27-year-old from Boston, won the triple jump on the first day of the 1896 Athens Games (the event was then called the hop, skip and jump).

He became the first Olympic champion since Varasdates of Armenia won a boxing event in 369, according to Olympedia and the OlyMADMen. Connolly did so after an 16-day, 16,000-mile journey.

He essentially walked out of Harvard, defying a dean’s advice that he might not be readmitted due to low academic standing.

Connolly began by boarding the Barbarossa, a German freighter, with most of the U.S. Olympic team. After landing in Italy, his wallet was stolen. He later had to leap to make it on a moving train to continue toward Greece.

He at last arrived on April 5. Connolly partied that night and woke from three hours of sleep thinking he had 11 days to rest before his competition.

He learned at breakfast the triple jump was actually that day. Connolly won despite gaining 12 pounds during his journey to Greece. He later finished second and third in the high jump and long jump.

A total of 243 athletes — men only — from 14 National Olympic Committees competed in Athens in 43 events over nine sports, according to the International Olympic Committee. The Tokyo Games are expected to include around 11,000 male and female athletes from more than 200 nations in 339 events over 33 sports.

Connolly competed again at the 1900 Paris Olympics, then covered the 1904 St. Louis Games as a journalist and remained a writer for the rest of his life. He died in 1957 at age 88.

Connolly was honored with a state in a South Boston park in 2012.

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