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Robert Garrett: ‘1896 Athens Summer Olympics’
- Updated: April 6, 2016
Immortality wasn’t in his plan 1896 Olympic hero Robert Garrett was just looking for fun.
Robert Garrett, scion of a wealthy and influential Baltimore banking and railroad family who became a businessman and philanthropist, was known as the “last first Olympian.”
He earned that distinction because at his death in 1961, he was the sole survivor of the 13 U.S. athletes who had traveled to Athens in 1896 for the first of the modern Olympic Games. He was 86 at his death.
Garrett was born in 1875 in Baltimore County, the son of Thomas Harrison Garrett and Alice Whitridge Garrett.
His great-grandfather, Robert Garrett, founded the banking house Robert Garrett & Co., which helped to finance the westward growth of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. His grandfather, John Work Garrett, and his uncle, Robert Garrett, were presidents of the B&O.
The athlete Robert Garrett entered Princeton University in 1893. After barely making the track team his freshman year, he committed himself to a rigorous training program and became one of the nation’s best collegiate shot-putters.
He was also an accomplished broad and high jumper, but athletes in the late 19th century had few opportunities for international competition.
It wasn’t until 1893 that France’s Baron Pierre de Coubertin organized a meeting in Paris that led to the resumption of the Olympic Games.
The Olympiad was under the supervision of Prince Constantine, heir to the Greek throne, and was held April 5-15, 1896.
Events included foot races of 100, 400, 600, 800 and 1500 meters; a hurdle race of 110 meters; the long and high jump; pole vault, shot put, quoit or discus throw; a marathon; pistol shooting; bicycle races; lawn tennis; and rowing and yachting races.
One of Garrett’s professors, William M. Sloane, suggested that he try the discus. After consulting classical records, Garrett commissioned a blacksmith to fashion a 12-inch discus that weighed 30 pounds and was impossible to throw any distance.
While crossing the Atlantic aboard the steamer SS Fulda, America’s Olympic team took to the decks where they engaged in vigorous daily workouts designed to keep them ready for competition.
Upon arriving at Athens, Garrett learned that the discus used by the Greeks weighed less than 5 pounds and had a diameter of 8 inches.
After persuading a Greek athlete to let him train with the lighter and smaller discus, Garrett entered the event with renewed self-confidence.
He won the competition against champion Greek thrower Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos when he flipped the discus 95 feet, 7 1/2 inches, to a gold medal and a world record.
“I wanted as much action as I could since it meant fun. I got into the discus thing never figuring I’d do anything but finish an absolute last. The technique of throwing it was all new to me,” recalled Garrett in a 1956 Evening Sun article.
“I threw the thing 95 feet, 7 1/2 inches, which was high school distance later on. But it was better than anybody else, so I won, and nobody was more surprised than I was when they gave me the prize,” he said.
“All were stupefied. The Greeks had been defeated at their own classic exercise,” wrote Burton Holmes, who witnessed the games and later became known for his illustrated travelogues.
“They were overwhelmed by the superior skill and daring of the Americans, to whom they ascribed a supernatural invincibility enabling them to dispense with training and to win at games which they had never seen before,” he wrote.
A New York Times editorial said: “Who can read without a glow compounded of patriotic pride and classical reminiscence that Robert Garrett of Princeton, N.J., has defeated the champion Greek discobolus, Paraskevopoulos, by six or seven inches?”
After college, Garrett returned to Baltimore. He was active in business and charitable organizations and lived at Attica, his North Charles Street home. The house was torn down long ago; today, Loyola College’s sports center occupies the site.
Garrett remained interested in physical fitness throughout his life. He began and financed a series of outdoor gymnasiums on land that he had donated.
“Garrett’s contribution to Baltimore lay in the fact that he was one of the first of his generation to realize that in the great urban developments growing out of industrialism, provisions for public recreation were a necessity, not a luxury,” said a 1987 article in The Sun.
The Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton has two discuses used by Garrett in Athens.
One is mounted; the other is not. According to library records, it is not known which was used by Garrett in pursuit of Olympic gold.