Unexpected Champions: New Photo Exhibit Explores 1896 Olympic Revival

Thomas Burke, second from the left, crouches in his starting position for the 100 meter sprint at the 1896 Olympics. (Courtesy of The Benaki Museum)Thomas Burke, second from the left, crouches in his starting position for the 100 meter sprint at the 1896 Olympics. (Courtesy of The Benaki Museum)

When 14 young American athletes went to the first modern Olympics, they had no support, no funding and no fanfare. Many people thought they were just shirking their responsibilities as students of Harvard, Princeton and Yale. But 13 of those athletes unexpectedly returned as Olympic champions.

A new exhibition at the National Hellenic Museum called “Olympic Revival: The 1896 Olympic Games” explores the story of these Americans in the first modern games.

The photos also examine the first International Olympic Committee and athletes from 13 other participating countries. The images, on loan the Benaki Museum of Athens, come from the camera of Albert Meyer, who became the official photographer of the 1896 games. He captured the various competitions, including track events, swimming, gymnastics, cycling and the first-ever marathon. 

Connie Mourtoupalas, cultural affairs president at the museum, said as the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro approach, it’s a good time to revisit the cultural and athletic history of the Olympics, which comes from an ancient Greek idea of balancing the mind and body.

“In order to be a competent citizen of democracy or of your city-state, you had to be a well-rounded and cultivated individual. The epitome of that cultivation was a balance between the physical and the intellectual. They exercised, but they also studied philosophy,” Mourtoupalas said.  “It’s not only about winning; it’s about being the best that you can be.”

Left: James Connolly won the gold for triple jump in the first modern Olympic event. Right: Robert Garrett took gold for shot put and discus. (Courtesy of The Benaki Museum)Left: James Connolly won the gold for triple jump in the first modern Olympic event. Right: Robert Garrett took gold for shot put and discus. (Courtesy of The Benaki Museum)

But when the 14 Americans left for the first Olympics since it had been banned in 393 A.D., nobody expected them to win. Many were kicked out of school and had to foot the bill for the trip to Athens themselves. Enter athletes like Robert Garrett, James Connolly and Thomas Burke. They left quite an impression.

Burke, who ran the 100-meter sprint, stepped up to the starting line in an unusual position, crouching, and placed his hands on the ground on either side of him.

“All the Greek people there were looking at him like, ‘Whoa, what is he doing?’ And the other American participants were also doing it, and [the Greeks] were all sort of baffled by his position. But he won. And that crouching position is now standard practice for sprinters,” Mourtoupalas said.

The men may have left the United States giving the impression of irresponsible students, but they returned champions.

“In essence, they started the American Olympic movement,” Mourtoupalas said. “Had they not won, I don’t know what would have happened. People wonder, would there have been an Olympic movement as it is now? But because they won so overwhelmingly, they immediately became national heroes."

Mourtoupalas said the exhibition also explores the founding principles of the Olympics, which many Greeks and Greek-Americans take to heart.

“We think of ourselves as individuals, but we also think of ourselves as part of a greater community,” she said. “The Olympics epitomizes this way of life … And it is also an amazing meeting of all people of the world. When these athletes get together, they forget their differences. They compete and do the best that they can. They come together strangers, and they leave friends. One would hope that this would be an inspiration to those around the world.”

“Olympic Revival: The 1896 Olympics” is on display through Sept. 30 at the National Hellenic Museum. A digital section tracing the journey of the games from their ancient roots to recent Olympic Champions will open soon. The museum is open 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. See ticket prices here.


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