f you want to see a little Olympic history this summer, you need go no further
than the Special Collections at Colby. Housed there, in its original three-inch
by four-inch leather-encased holder, is the first medal awarded in the modern
Olympic Games at Athens in 1896.
The silver medal (gold medals were not awarded to first place winners until later) was won by James R. Connolly, whose career as a writer of sea tales eventually made his Olympic victory a mere biographical footnote. The precise date of the medal's acquisition by Colby is not known, but it was given to the College as part of a collection of Connolly books and personal items by his daughter, Brenda, in the late 1940s or early 1950s. An earlier gift to the College by James Augustine Healy included many Connolly first editions, and his best known work, Gloucestermen, helped establish Colby's highly regarded collection of Irish literature.
Connolly, who received an honorary degree from Colby in 1950, was a student at Harvard when he dropped out of school to compete in the first modern Olympics in Athens. His performance in the hop, skip and jump--the precursor of today's triple jump--earned him the first medal awarded in the Games and established a record that stood for 13 years. He never returned to Harvard, didn't receive a college degree and went on to become what Joseph Conrad--himself a pretty fair teller of sailing adventures--once described as "America's best writer of sea stories."
In addition to the historic silver medal, Special Collections owns a silver cup and a medallion presented to Connolly for his Olympic achievements.