06/21/2012 03:24 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

Looking ahead to London: A Tip of the Hat to the First U.S. Olympians

The collection of fit young men didn't stand out from most of the passengers aboard the Europe-bound S.S. Fulda pushing off from Hoboken, N.J. on the morning of Saturday, March 21, 1896. But what they were about to accomplish would soon astound the world.

They were the members of the inaugural U.S. Olympic team headed to Athens for the first Modern Olympic Games. Fourteen in all, they were bound for Greece amidst indifference from the country and no help from U.S. amateur athletic officials or their colleges. But by the time this hastily put-together team was finished, they had stood at the top of the podium for an remarkable 11 Olympic championships--creating a swell of national pride and paving the way for generations of U.S. Olympians.

In my new book, Igniting the Flame: The Story of America's First Olympic Team from Lyons Press, I chronicle the improbable story of success by this squad of semi-talented Americans, a virtual pick-up team drawn mostly from Harvard and Princeton universities. In some cases, the athletes or their families financed passage to Athens. In other cases, their clubs took up collections, enabling the American athletes to head for Greece, where they would soon win the hearts and minds of the world.

What a story it was. Only four of the 14 Americans could be called "world class" at their events. Yet, on the first day of the Games, Boston's James Connolly took the triple jump--becoming the first Olympic champion in 1,500 years. Then Princeton's Robert Garrett won the discus, an event in which he had never before competed. All three American sprinters won their 100-meter heats, qualifying for the final. And that was just day one.

As American triumphs mounted, so did headlines, legitimizing the Games back home. Several days later, Garrett would win the shot put and Harvard's Ellery Clark become a two-time champion as well, in the long jump and high jump. Meantime, Tom Burke would win the 100 and 400 meters; William Hoyt, the pole vault; and Thomas Curtis, the hurdles. In shooting, the unflappable Paine brothers from Boston, John and Sumner, aided by frequent nips from flasks of whiskey and an intimidating arsenal of weaponry, would each win events.

But somehow the story of these U.S. Olympic pioneers has faded into obscurity. It has as well for their champion, William Milligan Sloane, a Princeton professor of classics whose role in establishing the modern Olympic Games has never been adequately explored. Other fascinating characters, like U.S. shooter Charles Waldstein (later known as Walston), a world-renowned archaeologist and a key behind-the-scenes Olympic official and organizer, and trainer John Graham rounded out the team.

In Athens, the intrepid group of American athletes become celebrities, followed in the streets by admiring locals and toasted by the Greek royal family. Returning to the U.S., they were heralded as national heroes, only to return to their classes and jobs, and within a few weeks, fade to black for good. On the eve of the 30th Summer Olympic Games, here is a look back at the first U.S. team, the ones who beat the odds and made the American Olympic movement catch fire.

America's First Olympic Champions