125 Years Ago, South Boston's James B. Connolly won the first medal in the Modern Olympic Games

On Monday, April 6, 1896James Brendan Connolly of South Boston became the first medalist in the modern Olympic Games when he won the triple jump on the opening day of the Games in Athens, Greece.

Connolly won the event - back then it was called the Hop, Skip and Jump - by jumping 44 ' 9 3/4", beating the second place finisher by nearly six feet. After his final jump, the audience began chanting his name and yelling Nike, the Greek word for victory, according to Connolly's teammate, Ellery H. Clark.

Connolly and his American teammates nearly missed their events - they arrived in Athens thinking they had twelve days to prepare, only to realize that the Greeks used the Julian Calendar, not the Gregorian Calendar, and his event was that afternoon.

Connolly also competed in the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, and took second place in the Triple Jump. Beverly Cronin of the Boston Herald wrote, "In typical Connolly fashion, he walked the seven miles to Paris Stadium because he couldn't afford the taxi fare."

Connolly later became an advocate for amateur sports, and also ran for US Congress in 1914 from his home in South Boston, representing the Progressive Party.

After his athletic career, Connolly became an accomplished writer. He authored 25 books, largely about the sea, and dozens of short stories. He also worked as a journalist, covering the Spanish-American War in 1898, World War I, and the Irish Civil War in 1920. In the 1930s he ran a literary journal called Limelight.

In his autobiography: Sea Borne: Thirty Years Avoyaging, Connolly talks about his family and their Irish roots, "As far back as my father and mother knew, their people came from seafaring stock. They were Aran Islands folk; islands that lie off the west coast of Ireland. It is a rough coast, and the Arans are little isles and almost solid rock, which was one reason why so many men of those isles took to the sea. The lack of arable land left the sea as their best chance for a living."

Connolly's papers are held in two collections: at Colby College in Maine and Boston College in Massachusetts. Connolly lived to age 88, and spent the last several months at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Jamaica Plain, Boston. He died on January 20, 1957 and is buried at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline.

When he died, an outpouring of respect came from journalists like Arthur Daley of the NYTimes, who called him “An Olympian to the End.”

On October 31 1987, South Boston residents including Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn and Bill Linehan, along with local track & field clubs gathered to unveil a statue to Connolly at Columbia Park, which today is called the John J. Moakley Park.   The statue, by sculptor Robert Haxo, depicts Connolly completing the final part of the Triple Jump, an Olympic sport that was known as the Hop, Skip & Jump when Connolly was competing. 

The James B. Connolly statue in South Boston is part of the Boston Irish Heritage Trail, a collection of memorials in downtown Boston and its neighborhoods that chart the Irish experience in Boston dating back to the 1700s.

Find year round details on Irish activities in greater Boston by visiting IrishBoston.org

(Excerpt from Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston's Colorful Irish Past) (Globe Pequot Press, 2013)