The modern Olympic Games began anew in Athens, Greece, in 1896. Thirteen or fourteen nations (explained below) competed in nine different athletic competitions over the course of ten days in April of that year. One of the members of the organizing committee, a man named Thrasyvoalos Manaos, ended up having an odd effect on the outcome of the games, specifically, in the tennis competition.
Manaos’s friend, John Pius Boland (pictured), was a student living in the United Kingdom. Fascinated with Greek mythology, Boland made the cross-continent trip to Athens, intending to be a spectator at the Games. But Manaos had an idea. Only fifteen entrants were signed up in the tennis competition, leaving room for more athletes to join the fray. Manaos convinced Boland to enter, even though Boland — who had not come prepared to engage in the Games as anything beyond a mere spectator — lacked appropriate footwear. Boland took the courts wearing leather-soled shoes replete with heels.
Boland faced off against Germany’s Friedrich Traun in the first round. Traun was an all-purpose athlete, having run a heat in the 100 meters (finishing third, and not qualifying for the next round) earlier in the Games. Boland — inappropriate footwear and all — won.
And won and won and won. Boland, the spectator in heels, took the gold. And then, for good measure, he and Traun teamed up in doubles, winning again. This added another interesting footnote to Boland’s Olympic resume. He and Traun were the only medalists at the first Olympiad to earn their honors, together, for different nations.
Boland did not return for the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris. By then, he had other duties: he was a Member of Parliament from Ireland.
Bonus fact: Were there thirteen or fourteen nations at the first Games? No one is certain. Chile’s lone athlete, Luis Subercaseaux, competed in the 100 meter, 200 meter, and 800 meter races in the 1896 Summer Games — according to Chile, at least. But that’s a point of contention. Many historians believe that while Subercaseaux was entered to compete, he did not actually run in the races, given that he was only 14 years old and that the only evidence of his participation came from his deathbed confession. Officially, however, he’s recorded as Chile’s (and Latin America’s) first Olympian.
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