Times have certainly changed!

Nowadays, Olympic heroes automatically become celebrities as soon as they win their gold medals. They make a fortune starring in commercials, flicks and on television. Life is sweet!It wasn't always that way. In 1896, Americans, for the most part, ignored their first Olympic team. They didn't care whether it went here, there or anywhere.

They just didn't care if the 10 athletes made it over to Athens, Greece, in April of that year for the first of the modern Olympic Games.

One distinguished scholar put it this way: "Athens! Olympic Games! It's a junket! Let those young men stay home and tend to their books!"

Members of the first American Olympic team came from Princeton University, the Boston Athletic Association and the Suffolk Athletic Club of Boston.

They were Albert Taylor, Francis Lane, Herbert Jameson and Robert Garrett, all juniors at Princeton; Bill Hoyt, Arthur Blake, Tom Burke, Tom Curtis and Ellery Clark, all BAA; and James B. Connolly, representing the Suffolk club.

At the outset, the Princeton athletes were the lucky ones.

They had the backing of Professor William Milligan Sloane, who loved sports and was one of the nation's leading supporters of the Olympic Games.

"Our young men carry the colors of Princeton," said Sloane. "Let us make certain their uniforms are not threadbare."

The BAA squad had ample funds in the beginning, too.

The five BAA athletes had the strong support of former Massachusetts Governor Oliver Ames.

"These are our boys," he said. "They will represent us in a foreign land. Let us do what we can to help them."

Connolly, the 10th member of the team, quit Harvard to compete in the Games and was perfectly content to pay his own boat fare over to Athens.

"When I won the championship of the United States in the amateur hop, step and jump championships and created a new record, I paid my own train fare down and back," he declared. "I have always paid my own fare."

At that point, all 10 athletes had enough funds for the trip. Then the unexpected began to happen.

Oliver Ames, the BAA fund-raiser, died in late 1895, less than six months before the April Games.

This in itself, though sad news, would not have been enough to wreck the financial security of the nation's first Olympic team. However, it did deprive the five BAA athletes of their chief fund-raiser.

The high price of boat tickets made everybody nervous. The contingent was scheduled to depart from New York on March 20, 1896, on the 8,000-ton German steamer Barbarossa.

On March 9, the Olympic team was informed the total boat fare would be $3,500 more than originally anticipated. Tickets also had to be purchased for five coaches.

In these inflationary times, $3,500 may only seem a drop in the bucket. In 1896, it was a healthy drink of water.

This news received ample coverage in the sports pages - but nobody came riding to the rescue with the extra $3,500.

"That does it for me," said Connolly. "I've pinched pennies and every blessed one of them was being used to get me over there to Athens. I'm out of it."

*** HAD NOT OAKES AMES intervened, it is safe to say the United States would not have had a team in the first Olympics.

Ames, the son of the late fund-raiser, had been shocked when fellow Harvard scholar Connolly quit school because he would not be allowed to take time off from his studies. The younger Ames felt Connolly should have received financial backing from Harvard and represented the school in Athens.

Ames tried the word-of-mouth approach - the technique used successfully by his father to get money. It didn't work.

Finally, he made a speech in Harvard Square one afternoon when scholars were headed home with their books.

He reminded the students that Ivy League rival Princeton had four men on the team and that Connolly was the closest thing Harvard had to a representative at the Olympics.

He told them of his father's efforts to raise funds for the BAA competitors. "I would hate to think he spent so much time, during his final months, on a failure."

Oakes Ames' message was heard. The students passed the hat, and in the days that followed, they raised additional money. Ames' words were heard elsewhere, too.

In South Boston, where Connolly was born, the women of his parish church, St. Augustine's, held a cake sale to raise money.

The tiny Suffolk Athletic Club, which had only about a dozen members, sold raffle tickets.

In New Jersey, the four Princeton track stars received financial help from family members. Sloane got into the act too. His personal appeals to faculty members and friends produced last-minute revenue.

Two days before the Barbarossa was scheduled to leave New York for Europe, the Olympic athletes added up their pennies.

They had raised the $3,500 with some small change left over.

***IN ATHENS, Connolly became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal.

He competed in the first event on opening day - the hop, step, and jump - and became the first person to win a medal in the modern Olympics.

Other members of the American team performed magnificently, too.

Princeton's Garrett won two gold medals for discus and shot put.

Burke of the BAA came up with a pair - for the 100 and 400 meters. Clarke, another BAA champion, was a double gold medal winner - for the high and broad jumps.

Two other BAA representatives brought home gold - Curtis for the hurdles and Hoyt for the pole vault.

In all, the Americans competed in 11 field events - and won nine of them.

Pretty good for a team that almost didn't have money enough to get to Athens.

Needless to say, they were welcomed home as conquering heroes.

That was the last time the United States ever ignored its Olympic team.