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Militia man and Olympic champ

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Imagine the Olympic Games without the specter of terrorists, tests for outlawed drugs or gold medals. That was the Olympics that a soldier who served in the Massachusetts militia experienced in Greece in 1896.

Thomas Pelham Curtis was his name, and he was an Olympic pioneer in the sense that he competed in the first games of the modern Olympic era. He won the 110-meter hurdles for the United States.

His time of 17.6 seconds on a soft track is by far the slowest winning time in that event’s Olympic history. But Curtis, who had studied electrical engineering, played football and ran track at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was just as proud to be an Olympian in Athens as did the 10,500 who marched and competed in Beijing during the 29th Summer Games.

“There was a romance and a novelty connected with them that is hard to describe,” stated Curtis, who wrote extensively about his experiences. He also took many photos of those games with a camera that his parents gave him.

He was born in San Francisco, and was 23 when he competed, according to Leonid Kondratiuk, the state historian for the Massachusetts National Guard. Curtis attended the U.S. Military Academy for five months in 1891, and he was a private in the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia’s 1st Corps of Cadets from March 1892 to March 1895, Kondratiuk reported. The 1st Corps was the elite infantry battalion in Boston, he added.

Curtis later served as a captain in the Quartermaster Corps with the Massachusetts State Guard from October 1918 to June 1919 while the Massachusetts National Guard was mobilized for World War I.

Others who have served in the National Guard -- including African-Americans Brig. Gen. Edward Gourdin and Col. Willie Davenport -- also savored the Olympic experience.

Gourdin, a track star at Harvard, got the silver medal in the long jump during the 1924 Summer Games in Paris, the same year he earned his Harvard law degree. His accomplishments included being the first man to long jump 25 feet, becoming the first African-American to be promoted to general in the Massachusetts Guard when he retired in 1959, and becoming the Bay State’s first African-American superior court justice.

Davenport, from Alabama, competed in five Olympics and was one of just eight Americans to compete in Summer and Winter Games. The man nicknamed ‘Breeze’ won the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles in 1968 at Mexico City and earned the bronze in the same event eight years later in Montreal when he was 33.

He made his final Olympic appearance as a member of the U.S. bobsled team during the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. Davenport was honored as one of this country’s 100 Golden Olympians before the 1996 Centennial Olympics in Atlanta. He was 59 when he died in June 2002.

The Olympics were ingrained into the international sports culture by the time Gourdin and Davenport came along. In fact, the Winter Games were first held in 1924, the same year that Gourdin long jumped in Paris.

But they were very much a novelty when Thomas Pelham Curtis traveled to Athens to compete in 1896. The ancient games had last been held in A.D. 393 before the Roman emperor Theodosius ended them.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French educator, persuaded 13 countries to send athletes to Athens for the first modern Olympics to promote interest in education and culture and to foster better international understanding through the love of athletics, according to The World Almanac.

The U.S. Olympic track and field trials did not exist. Curtis and other members of the Boston Athletic Association decided to compete in the inaugural games at the last minute, according to an MIT News Office report in 1996. The Boston group joined a team from Princeton and sailed for Greece less than two weeks before the games began.

One report states that the team trained in secret at Pennington, N.J., before sailing. The MIT account stated that the athletes trained for an hour a day on the steamship Fulda’s rear deck and that they practiced during a stop in Gibraltar. They arrived in Athens the day before the games began, April 5, a Sunday, according to the MIT story.

Curtis qualified for the finals in the 100-meter and 110-meter hurdles. But his trainer saved him for the hurdles, and Curtis edged Great Britain’s Grantley Goulding for the victory. That, Curtis acknowledged later, was the race “I had come especially to run.”

He made many other observations.

“Athens presented a splendid appearance. It was a small city built of very white houses, with white streets, white sidewalks and white everything, and with that background the thousands upon thousands of flags of every color and kind showed out in striking contrast, making the city seem almost like a huge kaleidoscope.

“Eighty-two thousand people were seated [at the stadium] and thirty thousand more, for whom there was no room, were standing tier on tier on a hill that towered above one of the seats.

“During the week following the Games, our American team was involved in continuous fetes. We were shown about the country by the three Princes, took dinner with them, went to dances and cotillions at the American Minister’s, Russian Minister’s and elsewhere, and in our progress through the streets were greeted with cries of ‘Nike,’ Nike” “╦ťVictor, Victor. Small shopkeepers insisted that we enter their stores and accept neckties, handkerchiefs, etc., for which they refused to accept payment, and which we were warned we should accept in order not to cause hurt feelings.”

It was, indeed, a more innocent time for the Olympics in which this Massachusetts militia soldier competed.

The terrorists would not strike until 1972 in Munich. The use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs would not become an international issue until well into the 20th century. And the gold medals?

Curtis didn’t get one. Gold medals were not given to Olympic champions until the St. Louis Games in 1904. The winners of the events during the 1896 Games, Curtis wrote, were presented an olive branch from the sacred grove of Olympus, a large silver medal, and a diploma printed in Greek.

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