As the Athens Olympics approached, the marathon race was viewed with interest, excitement, and concern. Individual feats of long-distance running had been recorded in years past. In the 1700s Foster Powell ran all over England, covering a 402-mile round trip at age sixty. From 1870-1890, six-day races became popular in England and the United States. Some runners covered over 600 miles during these races, but most of the contests were held on tracks with runners taking rests. The notion of a footrace on the hot and dusty country roads of Greece contested by an international group of amateur competitors and covering a distance of nearly twenty-five miles was unprecedented. Some medical experts warned that such a race would be extremely dangerous to the runners.
When Michel Bréal and Pierre de Coubertin had proposed the idea of the marathon race to the Athens Olympic Organizing Committee, the Greeks had embraced the plan with enthusiasm. Here, after all, was a race that grew out of Greek history and commemorated the feat of a Greek runner. Georgious Averoff, a Greek businessman who was the primary financial backer of the Athens Olympics and who had designed and paid for the restoration of the ancient Panathenaic Stadium in which many of the events would take place, was a supporter of the race, as was Ionnis Lambros, a wealthy collector of Greek antiquities. Lambros offered an antique vase to be added to Bréal's cup as the prize for the marathon champion.
Eager to excel in the marathon competition, the Greek held a race over the proposed Olympic course to select their team. According to some sources as many as three Greek men died while training for the marathon, so choosing a well-conditioned team was important. The Olympic trial, held on March 10, 1896, was the first organized marathon race ever to run, but two runners had run the course in February. Then, only G. Grigorou covered the entire course on foot-his time was three hours and forty-five minutes (3:45). Twelve runners, all members of Greek sports clubs, entered the trial race. The winner was Charilaos Vasilakos, who completed the course in 3:18. Spiridon Belokas and Demetrios Deliyannis rounded out the top three spots. Only a few days before the Games were set to begin, the Greek officials, eager to field the best team possible, held a second trial. This race was won by Mr. Lavrentis, whose first name was not recorded, in 3:11:27, and improvement of nearly seven minutes over the winning time in the first trial. Although entries into the Games were officially closed, additional names were added to the team, including the name of Spiridon Louis, who had finished fifth in the trial.
On the afternoon of Friday, April 10, seventeen runners gathered on the Marathon bridge to await the start of the first Olympic Marathon. Among the competitors were the Australian Edwin Flack, who had already won gold medals in the 800 and 1,500 meter races. Flack lived in London, where he worked as an accountant, but he held the Australian national record for the mile. Arthur Blake of the United States, the second place finisher in the 1,500 meters was another threat along with Albin Lermusiaux of France, third in the 1,500 meters, and Gyula Kellner of Hungary. The rest of the field was made up entirely of Greeks who had had some experience on the course from running the trial races. The race would cover a distance of forty kilometers (24.8 miles). Of the non-Greek competitors, only Kellner had ever run such a distance.
One foreigner had been disqualified before the start of the race. Carlo Airoldi had traveled nearly a thousand miles from his home in Italy to Athens on foot, only to be kept out of the race on the grounds that he was a professional athlete. Airoldi had more experience at long-distance racing than any of the entrants in the Olympic race, having run several fifty kilometer races. But the Olympics, as Coubertin had planned, adhered to a strict code of amateurism. The Italian would not race.
In the earlier track and field events, the Americans had been dominant, and the Greeks were desperate for a victory. The marathon was considered the highlight of the Games. A failure by the Greeks to win the event would mean deep disappointment and resentment. Even the foreigners in the crowd of over 100,000 that lined the road and filled the stadium where the race would finish hoped for a Greek victory.
The race began just before 2:00 P.M. The competitors had traveled to Marathon the night before in wagons. They had drawn lots to determine their starting position and now a small crowd of villagers watched as Major Papadimantopoulos gave a short speech and then fired his pistol into the air to begin the first Olympic Marathon.
The runners were escorted not by motorcycles and television trucks as in today's marathons, but by officials and doctors on bicycles and in horse-drawn wagons. The Frenchman Lermusiaux took the early lead, setting a fast pace even by modern standards. He reached the village of Pikermi, more than halfway into the race, in a mere fifty-five minutes, leading by nearly two miles over the Australian Flack, the American Blake, and the Hungarian Kellner. No Greeks were running in the top four spots, and Spiridon Louis was well back in the pack. Some time later, when Louis reached Pikermi, he enjoyed a glass of wine and expressed his certainty that he would win the race.
After Pikermi, the road turned uphill and the leaders began to regret the early pace. Blake dropped out less than a mile after the village, Kellner slowed and was overtaken by the Greek Vasilakos, winner of the first trial race. Lermusiaux began to drop his pace, but he still led at the village of Karavati, where the peasants crowned him with a victor's floral wreath. Shortly past the village, Lermusiaux weakened further. When a fellow Frenchman bumped him with a bicycle, he fell and was passed by Flack. Though he rose to his feet, he could not run much further, and near the twenty-mile mark he collapsed and was carried away.
With six miles to go, Flack led the race and he sent a bicyclist off to the stadium to announce his impending victory. This news sent the crowd gathered in the stadium into a sad silence. Meanwhile, behind Flack, Spiridon Louis ad passed the Hungarian Kellner, as well as several Greek runners, to move into second place. Flack was exhausted, and less than a mile later, Louis passed him and pulled into a lead of about twenty yards. For two and a half miles they ran in sight of each other, until Louis finally put on a burst of speed and Flack, unable to catch him, staggered and fell and was carried from the course. During this battle for the lead, Greek runners had moved into second and third place.
Again a messenger left the race to bring news to the stadium, but this time the news was joyful. The starter of the race rode on horseback into the stadium and rushed to the royal box to deliver the message to the king. In an instant the news spread and the stadium erupted in shouts of celebration. A Greek would win the marathon!
Louis ran through the streets of Athens, barely able to pass through the joyous throng that greeted him. When he entered the stadium, he was joined by the Crown Prince Nicholas and Prince George who ran with him to the finish line and then carried him in triumph to the royal box. Louis was an instant national hero, and his victory erased all hard feelings about the earlier triumphs of the Americans and other foreigners. He had completed the race in time of 2:58:50, a remarkable improvement over the times posted by the winners of the trial races.
Second across the line, over seven minutes later, was Charilaos Vasilakos, winner of the first Greek trial race, who was followed in short order by another Greek, Spiridon Belokas, and then the Hungarian Kellner. The crowd was in ecstasy seeing their countrymen seep the top three spots. Kellner later complained, however, that Belokas had covered part of the course not on foot but in a carriage. Belokas promptly admitted his guilt and third place was awarded to the Hungarian. It was not the last time that the marathon finish would be tinged with controversy.
The Greeks were not bothered with such trifles, however. Louis' victory had provided just the emotional boost that was necessary to keep the Olympic movement alive. Had an American or Frenchman won the coveted marathon, the disappointment of the crowd might have doomed the Olympic movement. As it was, the hysterical celebration of Greeks and visitors alike propelled the modern Olympic movement into the twentieth century.
The marathon was the final competition of the Olympics, but two more events remained before the Games would be over-the King's breakfast and the award ceremony. On Sunday, two days after the marathon, King George held an elegant breakfast at which the athletes were honored guests. Spiridon Louis attracted as much attention as anyone, not only because he came to the breakfast dressed in the national uniform of Greece-a narrow jacket, flared fustanella (something like a short skirt), tights, and boots. Following the breakfast, Louis was met by his adoring father and the two drove through the streets of Athens, the father revelling in the glory of the son.
The following Wednesday, the stadium was packed to watch the awards ceremony. The winner of each event was awarded an olive branch and a silver medal (there were no gold medals in the first modern Olympics). A laurel branch and a bronze medal commemorated second place. For a few events, special cups had been given as well. The last to receive his award was Louis, whose appearance on the platform was the cause of huge celebration in the stands. In addition to his olive branch and medal, he received the silver cup that Michel Bréal, who had conceived the marathon race, had donated. Louis was also presented with the antique vase given by Ionnis Lambros. On the vase was painted a contestant in a footrace at the ancient Olympic Games. Louis later donated the vase to a museum.
Despite offers of money, goods, services, and even a hand in marriage, Louis returned to his village, accepting, as one story would have it, only the offer of a horse and cart that the villagers needed to haul water. Many myths and legends grew up around Louis following his famous victory-so many that it is difficult to ascertain the truth about him. He was twenty-four years old and from the village of Maroussi and, according to which source you believe, he was a poor shepherd, a well-off farmer, a postal messenger, a soldier, or a peasant. His story even inspired a novelization, and the expression "egine Louis," which can be translated as "to become like Louis" or "take off like Louis," has became part of the Greek language.
Spiridon Louis, and all who had taken part in the first Olympic Marathon, had foreshadowed the creed that Pierre de Coubertin, inspired by a sermon at St. Paul's Cathedral on the eve of the 1908 Games, would write for the Olympics: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." In no Olympic event is the importance of those words more evident than in the marathon, and in the next century of Olympic marathons, competitors would consider taking part and fighting well the greatest victories of all.