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Hop, Step, and Jump To Olympic Gold

FRIENDS tell me there have been some snide remarks about my failure to compete in the Winter Olympic Games this time. There are two reasons. I didn't want some envious competitor to knock my block off, and it's been so cold here in Maine I had to stay home and keep the fire going. Not only that, but at the last minute the Olympic Committee scratched the two events in which I expected to take the gold.

First, the 14,000-meter uphill slalom on Maine Potato Barrel stave skis, a contest once popular with the farm folks of Aroostook County. I'm told the event was called off either for lack of entrants, or because the committee didn't have a 24-hour sweep-hand stopwatch. The second event was the hop, step, and jump on bear-paw snowshoes. (This is the modern version, in which each contestant is permitted four assistants to carry him over hedges, stone walls, and brooks.) So, the way it worked out, I huddled comfortably by a hardwood fire and improved myself by reading again the fragments of Menander and Homer's catalog of ships.

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I will not go so far as to say the predominance of commercialism in the televising of the Olympic Games detracts from any interest I might have in the competition. I would say, if asked, that the nationalization of the athletes detracts more than the breakfast cereals, and I think it was nice back when Joe was just plain Joe the shot-putter and not an ambassador of goodwill and tourism for Ukraine.

It was also nice when Joe was a kid from the slums or off a sharecropper farm and paid his own way, because that made him an amateur. He'd put the shot all morning and then go to his job in the shingle mill, where he got 15 cents an hour and the 4th of July off. Remember Joe? He was his own bodyguard.

Long years ago, now, I talked with an elderly gentleman whose name was Jim Connolly. I'm pretty sure he was from Gloucester, Mass., and somebody said he'd written a couple of books about fishermen on the Grand Bank. He had a lot of friends along Newspaper Row in old Boston, and liked to hang out and keep those friendships warm. I have no idea if his books can be found in the libraries today, but his name can be found in the records of the Olympic Games. Jim won the first gold medal of the revived Olympic Games of 1896, which were appropriately held in Athens, which Jim thought was in Turkey.

The ancient games were dedicated to Zeus, but this went out of favor after the rise of Christianity, and for centuries no games were held. Then some Frenchman got the idea of starting them again. It didn't happen right away, but after years of effort a successful international committee was formed, and athletes from many countries were invited to come to Athens for the revival.

Jim Connolly was little more than a youngster and was by no means an accomplished athlete. He played kick-the-can in the streets, and there were scrub baseball games. But Jim was captivated by the idea of reviving the ancient Olympic games, and with a couple of chums decided to go to Athens. In 1896 there was no great rush in any country to send representatives, and Jim had no trouble getting certified. Getting to Athens, however, was up to him. He well-nigh didn't make it. For some reason, he and his chums got on a wrong train, and as the big day approached they were somewhere in Turkey and didn't know just where. They couldn't find a Turk who could understand them, and when they did find one, he thought Athens might be in France.

Jim arrived in Athens with barely seconds to spare, got recognized and certified, and wasn't fully in his track suit when his name was called. His event was the hop, step, and jump, and he hopped and stepped and jumped just once and was finished and ready to go home. He had set a record for the event, not because he made great distance, but because he beat the others and this was the sport's first appearance. Then the boys came home from Athens and had no notion that Jim was a big hero.

I met James Connolly in the Sunday room of the Boston Post, introduced to him by John Griffin, who became editor-in-chief of the paper. John had said, ``Jim, tell us again about your gold medal in Athens!'' I never saw Jim Connolly again, and I've never seen his story in print. Allowing for tricks of memory as time turns, that was it. In the Olympic records you will find: 1896, Triple Jump, James Connolly, United States.

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