Immortality wasn't in his plan 1896 Olympic hero Robert Garrett was just looking for fun.

Posted: August 19, 2004

ATHENS — Perhaps the most amazing gold-medal story in Olympic history was already under way when Robert Garrett, lugging his heavy homemade discus, arrived at Panathinaiko Stadium on a chilly April afternoon in 1896.

A few days later, the 20-year-old Princeton student would win the discus in the first modern Olympics, which took place in the gleaming marble stadium that still stands at the foot of Ardittos Hill.

While the archers and marathoners competing there during these 2004 Olympics were exceptionally trained athletes employing the latest technology, Garrett was basically just a curious college student looking for an adventure. "I wanted as much action as I could, since it meant fun," Garrett wrote in a 1956 article for his hometown Baltimore Evening Sun. "I got into the discus thing never figuring I'd do anything but finish an absolute last."

Instead, he won.

He won even though his first glimpse of a discus had come a few months earlier - and it was one painted on an ancient vase. He won even though he hadn't ever touched a real discus until just before the event was held. And he won even though the device a New Jersey blacksmith made for him more resembled a manhole cover than an Olympic discus, being 25 1/2 pounds heavier and 4 inches wider than the official version.

"It's all such a remarkable story," Ella Brigham, 86, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., Garrett's only surviving child, said this week. "It's no wonder they made a film out of it [the 1984 TV movie First Olympics]. But for whatever reason, it was one my father never really talked about."

Garrett, from a Baltimore family that made a fortune in banking and the B & 0 Railroad, was married to a Philadelphia socialite, Katharine Brock Garrett. He died in 1961 at age 86. His discus gold medal - along with the other gold and two silvers he won in Athens - was destroyed in a 1930s fire at Princeton's gymnasium.

But the two wood-and-brass discuses he was given by a Greek competitor before tossing one 95 feet, 7 1/2 inches remain in a case at the university's Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, not far from the classroom building where Garrett - at least in the version his descendants have been told - entered the story.

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When, determined to resurrect the ancient Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin summoned international athletic figures to an 1894 meeting in Paris, one American representative was Princeton classics professor William Milligan Sloane. Once the revived Games were set for Athens in 1896, de Coubertin urged Sloane and a Harvard professor he knew to field a U.S. team.

"My grandfather had taken his classics course. One day after class, knowing he was captain of the track team, [Sloane] urged him to compete in the Olympics," said Garrett's grandson, Robert Garrett, 65, the owner of a New York financial-advisory firm. Sloane rounded up other Princeton athletes who, along with a Harvard contingent, made up the U.S. track and field team. That fact hardly made them celebrities.

Princeton's campus newspaper called their action "most deplorable," suggesting it was disloyal of them to abandon the school before meets with Yale and Columbia.

De Coubertin had envisioned Games populated by just this sort of gentlemen-athletes and demanded adherence to a strict code of amateurism.

The Princeton students - Albert Tyler, Herbert Jamison and Francis Lane were the others - got their money for the trip from Garrett's widowed mother, whose husband had been killed in a boating accident eight years earlier.

A junior who excelled in the shot put, Garrett was intrigued when he learned the Games would include a discus throw. But since the ancient sport didn't exist in America, he consulted with Sloane.

Together, they examined ancient drawings and vases.

"He found some on vases, made a few guesses about what size a discus would probably be and had a blacksmith make one for him," said his grandson. "I guess he miscalculated a bit."

The discus was ready by the time Garrett and 13 teammates - 11 track athletes and two shooters - sailed from Hoboken, N.J., to Naples, Italy, on the SS Fulda late in March. En route, Garrett worked out on deck with the mammoth discus.

"Needless to say, he couldn't throw it very far," his grandson said. Garrett believed he would arrive in Greece in time to practice further. He thought the Games began on April 18.

However, his grandson said, he hadn't realized Greece still used the old Julian calendar. The actual start was April 6, just a few days after his ship docked in Italy. The U.S. party scurried from Naples to Athens, arriving the day the Games opened with a parade of 300 athletes from 13 countries - more than two-thirds Greek. Garrett rushed to the stadium for a look and a workout. There he met a Greek athlete who gave him two actual discuses.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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