Discovered among a set of travel documents and photographs from the 1896 Olympics signed and dated by America’s First Gold Olympian Thomas Burke, his participant medal is the oldest item of US Olympic Memorabilia.
Thomas Edmund “Tom” Burke — a track star for Boston University — was the first-ever Olympic Champion in a sprint event, winning the 400 meters in a time of 54 seconds. On the last day, Burke won the finals of the 100 meters, his second victory in the Games and a “double unimaginable in today’s track world, where 100- and 400-meter runners are distinct specialists” according to John Hanc, who adds that one observer recalled “The easy manner in which [Burke] romped to victory made him the talk of the Games.”
Tom Burke is the first of an elite group of U.S. Gold Olympians that highlights Jesse Owens (Berlin 1936) and Carl Lewis (Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988). His participant medal from the 1896 Athens Olympics is the oldest medal ever to have been attributed to a U.S. Athlete, making it the most prized possession of U.S. Olympic History.
Prize and participant medals are not inscribed with the athletes’ names and therefore their attribution is almost impossible unless they come with supporting evidence. In this case, the documents and photographs from Thomas Burke acquired special relevance to determine that this was his very own 1896 Olympics Medal.
According to Heritage Auctions in Dallas, prize medals from the 1896 Olympics are considered nearly priceless relics and regarded as the ‘Holy Grail’ for Olympic memorabilia. In 2016, Heritage sold an unattributed 1896 prize medal for $65,725. Moreover, the celebrated Breal Cup awarded to Spiros Louis, winner of the first Marathon in the history of the modern games, sold in 2012 at Christie’s for over €600,000, breaking the auction record for Olympic memorabilia.
At the time of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 there was no organized effort to send an official U.S. Team to Athens. Noted historian and writer John Hanc noted that “as is often the case with bold, new ideas, participation in the pivotal event was met at first with puzzlement and derision.”
Still, 14 men from the Boston Athletic Association and Princeton saw a chance to be part of something significant, maybe even historic. Karen Price, a contributor to TeamUSA.org, said that they crossed the Atlantic to become the “Founding Fathers” of Team USA.
The Americans left New York on March 20, 1896 on a German Steamer, arriving in Naples twelve days later, then on a train across Italy, then on a steamer to Patras, Greece, followed by a ten hour train ride to Athens, arriving on April 5, 1896. The American team took 17 days to arrive the day before the start of the Games, ending up the most successful athletes in terms of Gold Medals.
The U.S. Team to the inaugural Olympics included Arthur Blake, Thomas E. Burke, Ellery H. Clark, Thomas P. Curtis, William W. Hoyt, John Payne, Sumner Payne, Charles Waldstein, Gardner Williams, and manager John Graham of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA); James Brendan Connolly and trainer Thomas J. Barry of the Suffolk Athletic Association of South Boston; as well as Robert Garrett, Herbert Jamison, Francis A. Lane, Albert C. Tyler and trainer Scotty McMaster of Princeton University.
Connie Mourtoupalas, cultural affairs president at the National Hellenic Museum, said that “in essence, they started the American Olympic movement.” “Had they not won, I don’t know what would have happened. People wonder, would there have been an Olympic movement as it is now? But because they won so overwhelmingly, they immediately became national heroes."
As John Kieran and Arthur Daley wrote in their 1936 Story of the Olympic Games, “the little team started on what was to be a triumphal journey and the beginning of United States ascendancy in the modern Olympic Games.”
Perhaps their most lasting contribution, John Hanc said, was what the team brought back. The entire squad was in the Olympic stadium to watch the finish of the marathon, the final event of the 1896 Games. They were so impressed by the drama of this event that they came home with the idea of staging a similar long-distance running race in the U.S.
B.A.A. member and inaugural US Olympic Team Manager John Graham and the two-time Olympic medalist Tom Burke spearheaded the effort to create America’s most beloved footrace, the Boston Marathon.
A year later, on April 19, 1897, Tom Burke scraped his foot across the narrow street and called the contestants’ numbers. At precisely 12:19, he yelled “Go!” forever securing his name in sports history as the official starter for the first B.A.A. Marathon.
Known today as the Boston Marathon, the race attracts 25,000 participants a year and is one of the country’s longest-running annual sports events. The B.A.A. Marathon often yields valuable sports memorabilia; a historical medal from the 1906 edition –with only 86 starters, is offered with a tag value of $15,000 on the internet.