The Olympics are afoot in Brazil, a global event that might seem very far away from Knoxville. Of course, 20 years ago during the Atlanta Games, some whitewater kayak events took place in southeastern Tennessee. But 120 years ago, a Knoxvillian had a lot to do with the original modern Olympics, especially in terms of assuring that the United States would be among the very few nations that were participants from the beginning.
Ebenezer Alexander was born on Summit Hill on the north side of Knoxville in 1851 when some people still called it Gallows Hill, the son of a judge and a woman who was descended from the city's founders. A bright kid, he attended the local university and graduated from Yale University in 1873.
Yale was at the forefront of a new interest in team sports, and though Alexander was small and seemingly frail, never a competitive athlete himself, he was interested. But he was a sports fan with a particular perspective. Alexander was a classics scholar, fascinated with ancient Greece, and by age 26 he was a full professor at the University of Tennessee, just as it was developing as the state university. In the 1880s, unhappy with UT's new (and, as it turned out, temporary) emphasis on vocational studies, Alexander moved to Chapel Hill to teach at the University of North Carolina.
Chosen by President Grover Cleveland, during his second term, as minister to Greece, Romania, and Serbia, Alexander moved his family to Athens in 1893, at a critical time, a time especially gratifying for someone so interested in classical history. Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin was leading an effort to revive the ancient games at Athens. As the U.S. ambassador, Alexander supported the movement, and as an individual, he became the first financial donor. By some accounts he used his Ivy League connections to get athletes from Princeton and Yale to make the long trip over, dealing with the first U.S. team personally by offering some context about the deep history of the Games.
The cobbled-together team, the only non-European team at that first Olympics, did very well, earning 11 gold medals.
A year after the Olympics, Alexander's career as a diplomat ended with a new presidential administration, and he returned to Chapel Hill, where he was the much-beloved dean of faculty. He maintained close ties with Knoxville and was the commencement speaker at UT in 1898. On a couple of occasions, he astonished friends when he walked the 300-plus miles between Knoxville and Chapel Hill.
He was a pipe smoker, though, and by some accounts suffered a congenital heart problem. When he became ill in 1909, he returned to Knoxville to live with his son in the Circle Park area. On a Friday morning in early March 1910, two days after turning 59, Alexander took a carriage ride around downtown Knoxville to observe all the changes to the city of his youth, where the Bijou Theatre was new, and the 11-story Burwell building was establishing new standards for the "skyscraper." Upon alighting from the carriage at Pryor Brown's livery stable on Church Street at Market, Alexander collapsed and died instantly.
At the time, though there had been games in 1900, 1904, and 1908, the Olympics were not yet an international phenomenon, and in 1910 it was unclear whether the tradition would last. Alexander's early involvement in the Olympic movement was unmentioned in his obituaries. He was buried at Old Gray Cemetery, with the inscription, "Teacher, Administrator, Diplomat."