James Brendan Connolly (1868-1957) was the first winner of an Olympic Medal in the modern Olympic Games, 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, and most importantly was born in South Boston, MA.
Connolly left Harvard College to compete in the revival of the Ancient Olympic Games at Athens in 1896. He used his own savings and was supported by the small Suffolk Athletic Club in South Boston, MA. Connolly, being the first winner in the first event, became the first Olympic Victor in 1500 years. There were no gold medals awarded at that time, but his silver medal made him the highest victor.
According to the Taunton Gazette, “Connolly’s victory prompted the playing of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and the raising of the American flag over the stadium – two practices that have become part of the Olympic tradition.”
Connolly was born in South Boston, MA in 1869 and was one of 12 children in an Irish immigrant family. He at one point lived at 793 Columbia Rd at the Dorchester/Southie line, according to this letter from President Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt and Connolly must have developed a friendship, because several websites quote Roosevelt as saying “if I were to pick one man for my sons to pattern their lives after, I would choose Jim Connolly.”
I visited the Connolly statue in Southie before the opening ceremonies this week in London. The statue sits in Joe Moakley Park, and was designed by Thomas Haxo and erected in 1987. The statue shows Connolly in the process of landing a long jump, planting his heels and thrusting forward to keep his balance.