Robert Garrett was from wealthy family and studied in Princeton University. Robert Garrett excelled in track and field athletics as an undergraduate. He was captain of the Princeton track team in both his junior and senior years. Garrett was primarily a shot-putter, though he also competed in the jumping events. When he decided to compete in the first modern Olympics in 1896, Professor William Milligan Sloane suggested he should also try the discus.
They consulted classical authorities to develop a drawing and Garrett hired a blacksmith to make a discus. It weighed nearly thirty pounds and was impossible to throw it any distance, so he gave up on the idea. Garrett paid his and three classmates (Francis Lane third in 100 m, Herbert Jamison second in 400 m, Albert Tyler second in pole vault) way to Athens to compete in the Olympics. When he discovered that a real discus weighs less than five pounds, he decided to enter the event for fun.
The Greek discus throwers were true stylists. Each throw, as they spun and rose from a classical Discobolus stance, was more beautiful than the last. Not so with Garrett, who seized the discus in his right hand and swinging himself around and around, the way the 16-pound hammer is usually thrown, threw the discus with tremendous force. Garrett's first two throws were embarrassingly clumsy. Instead of sailing parallel to the ground, the discus turned over and over and narrowly missed hitting some of the audience. Both foreigners and Americans laughed at his efforts and he joined in the general merriment. His final throw, however, punctuated with a loud grunt, sent the discus sailing 19 centimeters beyond the best Greek competitor's Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos's mark.
American spectator Burton Holmes wrote:"All were stupefied. The Greeks had been defeated at their own classic exercise. They were overwhelmed by the superior skill and daring of the Americans, to whom they ascribed a supernatural invincibility enabling them to dispense with training and to win at games which they had never before seen." The performances were remarkable. According to James Connolly, in five of the track and field events won by Americans, they had not had a single day of outdoor practice since the previous fall.
Garrett also won the shot put and finished second in the long jump and high jump (tied equally with James Connolly). In the 1900 Olympics, Garrett placed third in the shot put and the standing triple jump; he didn't take part in the discus throw because it was held on Sunday. Garrett was the IC4A shot put champion in 1897.
Later he became a banker and donator to science, specially to history and archeology. He helped to organize and finance an archaeological expedition to Syria, led by Dr. John M. T. Finney. His hobby was collecting Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. In 1942 Garrett donated to Princeton University his collection of more than 10,000 manuscripts, including sixteen Byzantine Greek manuscripts, containing rare and beautiful examples of illuminated Byzantine Art for the use of scholars.