John Pius Boland: The man who became an accidental Olympic champion

In this month of commemoration and celebration it is appropriate to recognise the achievements of John Pius Boland. 

On April 11, 1896, he became the first Irish-born athlete to win an Olympic title when he won the men’s singles and doubles titles at the Athens Games.

Boland was born on September 16, 1870 at 135 Capel Street, Dublin and was a member of an elite Dublin family who controlled one of Ireland’s leading baking and flour-milling companies.

Boland received the best education Catholic money could buy and attended the Catholic University School in Dublin before transferring to Cardinal Newman’s Oratory School at Edgbaston. The University of London was next before he completed his education at Christ Church in Oxford.

He was a student at the University of Bonn from mid-October 1895 to mid-March 1896 and when there he kept a journal in which he also recorded his Olympic odyssey. The long-lost journal re-entered the public domain in 1994 and it made its way to a final resting place at the IOC’s archive in Lausanne. 

The journal provides one of the finest contemporary accounts of the 1896 Games and provides a fascinating insight into aspects of the sporting world of the mid-1890s.

A notice in the Oxford Union alerted Boland to the proposed Olympic revival. He was immediately enthused and ‘straightway determined to be present if possible at these Games’ and he played a minor role in spreading the Olympic gospel. 

Konstantinos Manos, one of the secretaries of the organising committee for the Athens Games was a freshman at Oxford in 1895. Boland contacted Manos and organised a breakfast party at the Union with some of his athletic friends at which ‘kippers, grilled chicken and curried sausages, omelette, coffee, toast and preserves’ were consumed as Manos explained the Olympic concept to the guests.

During his time in Bonn, Boland hardly exerted himself physically apart from playing a round of golf and participating in three football matches. He referenced tennis in his journal to record the fact that the courts were flooded and iced over in winter for skating. 

He departed from Bonn on March 14 with Alfred Pazolt as his travelling companion and completed a type of cultural Grand Tour of central and south-east Europe on his way to Athens. St Patrick’s Day was celebrated in Munich ‘with a glass of beer at the Hoffbrauhaus’. 

Three days were spent sightseeing in Vienna interspersed with a visit to the Opera, the theatre and attendance at a staging of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing.

At Patras, they ‘explored the town & old Venetian fortress’ before arriving in Athens on March 31. Cook Travel had organised Boland’s accommodation at the Minerva Hotel, one of the best and most expensive in Athens, where they ‘couldn’t have been better off. 

Two first floor rooms in an excellent hotel in the centre of everything, wine included, meals when one liked and the choice of 14 or 15 dishes for 20 francs a day.’

John Pius Boland clearly had no intention of competing at Athens. His tennis was recreational in nature although at the Oratory School he received intensive coaching in the sport.

The sport was ‘decidedly inferior’ to cricket as far as Boland was concerned. A dinner conversation with an English-speaking Greek from Alexandria, Dionysios Kasdaglis, on 6 April 1896 inspired a decision that was to create Olympic history. 

Kasdaglis informed Boland that few players had entered the tennis competition and the Dubliner agreed to partner his dinner companion in the doubles and also enter the singles. 

For the men’s doubles Boland was paired with Friedrich Traun, a German athlete. Boland was ‘totally unprepared for tennis’ and spent the following day frantically ‘hunting up the various requisites’.

‘A tennis bat of sorts was easily secured at the Panhellenic Bazaar in the Rue de Stade, but tennis shoes were not to be had in Athens’. Boland had to play in a pair of everyday shoes with leather soles and heels.

The thirteen competitors who entered for the tennis competitions formed an eclectic bunch and included a Serbian weightlifter and Greco-Roman wrestler ‘who had only the most rudimentary notion of playing’ according to Boland; his own doubles partner was a German 800m runner.

The entries also included George Stuart Robertson, an English hammer thrower and Edwin Flack, the Australian 800 and 1500m Olympic champion. Kasdaglis represented Egypt and the remainder of the field were Athenian players.

Boland beat three Greek opponents to qualify for the final, held on April 11 , where he defeated Dionysios Kasdaglis (6-2, 6-2), the man who encouraged him to enter. 

He contemplated withdrawing from the final but felt he ‘could not scratch as the game was of an international character’. Immediately before the men’s singles finals, Boland and Traun defeated Kasdaglis and his partner 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 to win the men’s doubles title.

At the Closing Ceremony on April 15 all the Olympic champions were presented with their prizes by King Georgios. 

Each winner received ‘a huge diploma in a large circular cardboard case, a medal in a case and a branch of olive a couple of feet long’ that had been ‘brought especially from Olympia itself’.

A number of myths have attached themselves to Boland’s achievement; quite clearly he was not invited to compete by his Oxford acquaintance Konstantinos Manos, neither did he travel to Athens with a group of Oxford students and most importantly of all he did not engage in any type of nationalist demonstration after his victories.

He did however commit one minor breach of protocol at the presentation ceremony, he tells us in his journal. 

Distracted by his armful of medals, diplomas and olive branches, he forgot ‘to descend the steps backward’ but compensated ‘for the omission by bowing’ when he got to the bottom.

That was the nature of John Pius Boland, an erudite and cultured gentleman whose presence in Athens began a sequence that remains unbroken: an Irish- born athlete has competed at every staging of the summer Olympic Games since 1896. Only five other nations can claim a similar distinction.

* (Boland’s diary was published in 2008 in a book entitled From Bonn to Athens, Single and Return edited by Heiner Gillmeister.)

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