A writer of numerous baseball books (A Great Day in Cooperstown: The Improbable Birth of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, 2006, etc.) shifts to another summer event, telling the little-known story of the 1896 Olympics, the first in 1,500 years.
Imagine: An American Olympian shows up for the discus event, having never really tried it before; some accommodating Greek athletes demonstrate, and he wins. Such was the state of turn-of-the-century international athletic competitions. And so it was that a small American team (14 members) traveled to Athens, having no idea what sort of competition they would face. Not much: They came home with 11 firsts to a country now ecstatic about the Games (yawns had accompanied their departure). Reisler weaves a handful of narrative threads: the story of the resurrection of the Olympic Games, and of the men who accomplished it; the primitive means of travel and lodging; the stories of the individual American athletes and accounts of the events; and some whatever-happened-to-those-guys follow-up. An American won the first medal (James Connolly in the triple jump), a couple of wealthy pistoleers, almost on a lark, headed for Greece and took firsts, and another American attempted the marathon, which was won by the Greeks, to tumultuous patriotic thunder. The American pole-vaulters passed on all the lower levels; when they were ready, all the other competitors were eliminated. Reisler writes well about the oddities—the photograph of the sprinters lined up in a potpourri of poses is a howl—but he sets us up for an exciting 100-meter race, cuts away, then disappoints later with his perfunctory account.
Though the author sometimes writes like the team’s PR agent, he skillfully records the cries and struggles attending a nearly miraculous rebirth.