1896 was a cold spring in Greece and snow had fallen on the mountains north of Athens just a few days before the Olympic Games had begun. According to the local calendar it was March 25 and, after a few speeches had been made, it was time for the modern revival of the Games to begin.
The first Olympic race for nearly two millennia was a heat of the men’s 100 metres. The world’s best at the distance were Alfred Downer, the Jamaican born Scotsman, and Bernie Wefers of the USA but they had not travelled to Athens and nobody was sure where the title would go.
The best known of the five men who lined up at the start for the first heat was Kurt Doerry. Doerry was one of the outstanding German sporting figures of the period around the turn of the century. At 22 years old he was already well into a career that would see him win German championships as a sprinter, play field hockey for his country and become a pioneering journalist and author on sporting matters.
Alajos Szokoly is an easy man to spot on pictures from 1896 with his extravagantly styled moustache. Although he was a Slovak from the village of Hronec in Central Slovakia, Szokoly represented Hungary as Slovakia would not gain independence for another 20 years. He would win the inaugural Hungarian 100 yards title later in the year before becoming an important figure in the administration of Hungarian athletics and opening a sports museum. He ran in Athens having only recently recovered from a badly cut foot.
Charles Gmelin was 24 years old and had graduated from Oxford University, whom he had represented at both running and cricket, the previous year. He became a minister in the Church of England in 1903 but continued to play cricket for Oxfordshire at the second highest level of the sport in England into his late thirties.
For many years little was known about Frenchman Adolphe Grisel except that he had been a regular medallist in the long jump at the French championships for most of the decade. It did not help that his given name had been incorrectly listed as Alphonse for nearly a century. It’s only in recent years that his background as a soldier and latterly as an architect in the northern French town of Saint-Quentin has been discovered.
The fifth and final athlete in the first heat was probably the least known of the delegation from Princeton University in the USA. A third-year student, Francis Adonijah Lane travelled to Athens in the company of his cousin, Albert Tyler, who would place second in the pole vault. Lane would later study medicine at Washington University in St. Louis and pursue a successful career as an ophthalmologist, being head of department at several Chicago Hospitals.
Two further athletes were due to compete, but no evidence exists that the 13-year-old Chilean schoolboy Luis Subercaseaux or Leonidasz Manno of Hungary took part.
When the gun went to start the race, it became apparent that Doerry was nowhere near his usual self and struggling to cope with an injury. Lane stormed ahead to win by over half a second from Szokoly who edged out Gmelin to the other qualifying position for the final.
Eight men were entered for the middle of the three heats but only five competed. Tufferi of France decided to concentrate on the concurrent triple jump, where he would place second, while his fellow Frenchman Tournois and Nani of Hungary scratched from the race.
Tom Curtis, who had studied electrical engineering, played football and ran track at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a good athlete but not one of the top rank of American sprinters. He travelled as part of a Boston AA team that were assembled at short notice and served as an unofficial chronicler of the Games with his camera. He was a captain in the Massachusetts National Guard and, during World War One, served as an aide to future US President Calvin Coolidge. Curtis would go on to help form the Lord Electric Company and help develop the electric toaster.
Alexandros Khalkokondylis had the hopes of the host nation resting on him. The native of Athens had won the 100m, 400m and long jump at the Greek Championships held in the Olympic Stadium a few weeks earlier.
In the same vein as Doerry and Szokoly, Eugen Schmid of Denmark was another sporting pioneer. By the time of his appearance in Athens he was 34 years old, much the oldest of the sprinters present, and had served as president of the Danish Rowing Federation for two years. He combined his 100-metre running at these Olympic Games with a 12th place finish in rifle shooting.
The rest of the field was made up of two British athletes, although neither were born in the UK. George Marshall was the son of a British doctor who had settled in Western Greece and had become the British consul in Patras. He entered the Olympic Games after achieving some modest success in Greek regional events. George and his brother Fred were also entered in the tennis doubles but withdrew before their first scheduled match.
Launceston Elliott was a larger than life figure with family links to Scottish aristocracy. He had been born in Mumbai, India where his father worked as a magistrate with the Indian Civil Service. Elliott was a pupil of the German bodybuilder and showman Eugen Sandow and a much better weightlifter than he was a sprinter. The day after the heats of the 100 metres he won gold and silver medals in his favoured sport. 125 years later he remains the only person to compete in five different sports at one Olympic Games. In 1903 he left competitive sport for a career in vaudeville, performing a strongman act. One of the highlights of the act involved a stunt where he would put an iron bar across his shoulder with a rider on a bicycle dangling on each end. He would then rotate until the cyclists were swung into a horizontal position.
The second heat almost exactly mirrored the first. The American ran away from the field to win a decisive victory in 12.2 seconds. Khalkokondylis also reached the final after finishing a metre clear of Elliott with Schmid and Marshall trailing behind.
There were again five starters for the final heat following the non-appearance of Germany’s Alfred Flatow, who would win three gold medals in gymnastics a few days later, and Mouratis, a Greek from what is now the Turkish city of Izmir.
Tom Burke from the USA was probably the only genuinely world class athlete entered in the 100 metres although his speciality was the 400 metres. He was the only reigning American champion to compete in Athens having won the longer race at the 1895 AAU Championships. Burke was a student at the Boston University School of Law in 1896 and in later life combined his law practice with a side-line as a sports journalist with several Boston newspapers.
Fritz Hofmann of Berlin had been a two-time German champion over 100 metres as well as winning the 100 and 400 at a precursor meeting to the European Championships in 1893. He also had double duty in Athens as the non-competing captain of the gymnastics team (although he did take part in the rope climbing event). On returning home he found himself banned from national competitions for competing “in a sporting event dedicated to internationalism.”. Despite this he would return to the Olympics in 1900 and 1904 as the team leader to the German gymnasts. He ran a sports goods business in Berlin and served for nearly a quarter of a century on the German Board for Physical Exercises.
The second German in the race, Fritz Traun from Hamburg, was his nation’s outstanding middle-distance runner but was very much competing under distance in the 100m. Yet another in the cavalcade of multi-talented sportsman to grace the 100 metres in Athens, he would help found the German Golf Federation, drive a bobsled down the Cresta Run and would be forever feted for his performances at the first Olympics – although not on the running track. After early eliminations from the 100m and 800m he decided to take his chance in the tennis tournament. Traun lost a close first round match to eventual gold medallist John Boland in the singles then teamed up with his opponent to win the doubles. Sadly, his life ended in tragedy. In 1908 Traun married Friedel Pretorius. Shortly after returning from their honeymoon a woman who also claimed to be legally married to him confronted him at a Hamburg hotel. Whether this truly the case is unknown but shortly afterwards Traun shot himself dead in the bathroom of his apartment. Friedel was three months pregnant at the time.
Henrik Sjöberg was a medical student from Uppsala in the east of Sweden. If he’d competed a little later, he may well have been a decathlete as he was competent in running, throwing and jumping as is proved by his involvement in all three disciplines in Athens. He also competed in the vault in gymnastics. Like Traun his life ended in tragic circumstances. Sjöberg was carrying on his career as a doctor when he decided to spend a summer holiday in 1905 at Helsingor, just across the water in Denmark. Some sources say he was due to announce his engagement on the day he went swimming in the sea. He was never to return, having probably suffered a heart attack in the water.
The final of our 15 competitors was Georgios Gennimatas, a cavalry officer from the province of Laconia at the southernmost tip of the Greek mainland. He had qualified for the Olympic Games by placing third at the Greek trials in early March and probably was the most obscure runner in the event.
The American superiority in the event continued as Burke proved much too good for the other runners and became the first man to break 12 seconds at an Olympic Games. Hoffman qualified safely in second place with the rest trailing badly in their wake.
With the six finalists decided, the Games moved on to other things and it would be four days before they would contest the final. Tom Curtis had also reached the final of the 110m hurdles which immediately followed the 100m so withdrew to concentrate on his hurdling. It turned out to be a wise decision as he won the event in a desperately close finish with Goulding of Great Britain.
The 100 m final was thus reduced to five runners, Burke and Lane of the USA, Hofmann of Germany, the Slovak-Hungarian Szokoly and the home favourite Khalkokondylis. The start was fairly even but after a few seconds it became apparent that Burke and Hoffman were stretching away from the rest. In the final phase Burke retained his speed for a little longer than Hofmann and drew ahead to win by approximately two metres. Thomas Burke of Boston had won the title of “Fastest Man on Earth”.
Between the heats and the final Burke had already won the 400m title although he had resisted the temptation to run the 800m as well. With this 100-metre final his four-day Olympic career ended,
Four men who competed in the event became Olympic champions in 1896, Burke and Curtis on the track, Elliot in the weightlifting arena and Traun on the tennis court. A fifth, Schmid, would win gold as part of a joint Sweden-Denmark tug of war team at Paris in 1900.