Who was the first tennis gold medallist?

In 1895, the Neo Phaliron Velodrome was a sports arena that saw the establishment of Athens Lawn Tennis Club within its premises. The courts bore the red clay as the playing surface and were all set to host the Summer Olympics of 1896. The singles field of the 1896 Olympics that was gunning for gold did not feature Wilfred Baddeley, Joshua Pim or Wilberforce Eaves who consistently made their appearance in the Wimbledon finals from 1891 to 1895. When the draw was out, 16 players were a part of the player field who came from six different nations.

One of the players in the draw was named John Pius Boland. Boland was Irish by birth and was 26 years old when he appeared in the draw of the 1896 Olympics. Till 1922, all Irish players represented Great Britain and thus, Boland represented the Union Jack. Boland was born in a rich family who owned one of the most leading baking and flour-milling companies and were famous for their “Boland Biscuits” line. When Boland was 12 years old, he lost both his parents and along with his six siblings was left under the guardianship of Mrs. Boland’s half brother, Nicholas Donnelly.

Boland received the best education by studying at the University School in Dublin and the Cardinal Newman’s Oratory School at Edgbaston. When Boland was at the Orgatory School , he had received training in cricket and tennis from Father Pereira, who was a County Cricketer for Warwickshire and was an expert lawn tennis player.

In 1892, Boland graduated from the University of London and finally got his Bachelors and Masters degree in Law in 1901 at Christ Church, Oxford. In between, he went to the University of Bonn from October 1895 to March 1896 where he went to complete a semester. At Bonn, he played a game of golf and three football matches. In his journal, he mentions that playing tennis was not possible at Bonn as the courts were flooded and frozen and were instead used for ice skating. 

Thrasyvoulos Manos, was one of the leading members of the organizing committee of the Athens Games. He had met Boland in 1894 and Manos had given a little speech on “Reviving the Olympics” which fascinated Boland. The Dubliner had kept in touch with Manos and in 1896, when he learnt about the project of rehabilitation of Olympics, he flew to Athens from Bonn just days before the Olympics were due to start. Boland’s primary intention was to enjoy a good cultural holiday at southeast Europe, which he did by enjoying a stay in some fine hotels and roaming across Munich and Vienna before arriving at Athens to watch the games.

Manos, now a close friend of Boland showed him the projected 12-player field that he had then designed for the Olympics. On paper it sure wasn’t an impressive list for a tournament of international stature. Dionysios Kasdaglis was the Greek favorite for the lawn tennis event at the Olympics. He persuaded Boland to participate in the event over a dinner conversation. Boland was reluctant at first but when he was told that he may not find another court in Athens, Boland said,

“In that case, I shall play.”

Boland barely had any time to prepare for the biggest international tournament in the sporting world back then. In fact his initial response to the invite to play at the Olympic games was, “No, thank you. Not in the Olympic competition.” One can definitely comprehend with Boland’s response as for someone who had barely any experience on the global arena was casually handed a ticket to the Olympics main draw. 

A major hurdle that Boland faced was finding the right attire and equipment for the tournament. Boland was lucky to get a tennis racquet from the Panhellenic Bazaar in Rue de State but was unfortunate to find suitable tennis shoes. He played the entire tournament played on red clay, wearing shoes with leather soles and heels.

The tournament began on 8th April 1896. In order to strengthen the player field, men from other sports decided to be a part of the draw. Momcilo Tapavica (weight lifter), George Robertson (hammer thrower), Edwin Flack and Friedrich Traun (800m runners) were a few participants. Boland defeated Traun in the first round and progressed to the quarter-finals. He was up against Greek tennis player Evangelos Rallis, who too was ousted by the Irish. In the semis, Boland defeated another Greek tennis player, Konstantinos Paspatis, who would eventually settle for bronze.

In the finals, Boland defeated home favorite Dionysios Kasdaglis, the player who had invited Boland to compete at the Olympics. Boland won the match in a thumping fashion, dropping only four games in the entire match. Imagine the jaw-dropping faces of professional tennis players like Frank Marshall who represented Great Britain and ended up with a wooden spoon finish.

Boland learnt that Friedrich Traun, the man whom he defeated in the first round was facing a setback in the doubles field as his partner fell ill. Boland joined forces with Traun to compete in the doubles draw as well. The duo reached the finals and successfully defeated the Greek pair of Dionysios Kasdaglis and Demetrios Petrokokkinos in three sets. 

On April 15th during the closing ceremony, many articles suggest that Boland asked the members of the Olympic committee to hoist an Irish flag instead of a British flag. In reality, no event of that sort took place and should be considered as a myth. However, in his diary Boland states that he did make one mistake in the ceremony by not descending the stairs of the podium backwards which was part of the decorum. He further adds that he made up for the breach by humbly bowing down to the spectators. Thus, ended the tale of John Pius Boland, who came to Athens for the purpose of vacationing in Europe and left with two Olympic gold medals, a diploma in a large circular cupboard case and an olive branch couple of feet long which was specially brought from Olympia.

Boland never practiced law neither did he participate in any other tennis tournament apart from the 1896 Olympics. At the start of the 20th century, Boland became a part of the Irish Parliamentry Party and played a key role in uplifting the political scenarios of Britain and Ireland. He was also appointed a member of commission for the National University of Ireland from where he would later receive an honorary doctrate in 1950. Boland was given a papal knighthood and thus became a Knight of St.Gregory for his work in education. Eight years after he recieved his honorary doctorate, the Dubliner breathed his last on St.Patrick’s Day at his home in London.

In the 1980s, one of the two gold medals that Boland won in the first modern Olympics of 1896 was auctioned and sold at $13,500. Two decades later, in 2004, his second medal was auctioned as well with the minimum bid being $20,000.

What was John Pius BOLAND the man like? His daughter Bridget was not the only person captivated by his good looks. “Well over six foot tall,” she wrote, “with an athlete’s figure all his days, with eyes of a very light but startling blue, he exuded a kind of intelligent innocence which is a rare combination.” He had a mellifluous voice which persuaded other people that he must be some kind of parson.– Journal of Olympic History, May 2004

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