Spiridon Louis’ marathon triumph at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 is well known, a Greek runner winning an event inspired by Greek legend, but what is less far frequently mentioned is that he was Europe’s first Olympic athletics champion, and indeed Europe’s only Olympic athletics champion in Athens 124 years ago.
Only 12 events were on the programme in 1896 and the longest event on the track was the 1500m but the marathon had been conceived in organisational meetings for the Games by Frenchman Michel Breal, a friend and compatriot of Pierre de Coubertin, based on the legend of Pheidippides, the Athenian soldier who ran from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce a victory over an invading Persian army, reputedly dying as a result of his effort.
On the last of four days of athletics at the inaugural Games, on Friday 10 April 1896, the climax to a programme which had started on the previous Monday and had a rest day on the Wednesday, 17 competitors – including runners from Australia, France, Hungary and the USA as well as host nation Greece – lined up in the town of Marathon for a 40-kilometre race in the afternoon heat and over dusty roads to Athens.
France’s Albin Lermusiaux, who had earlier finished third in the 1500m – it would be inaccurate to say that he got the bronze medal as winners in the stadium events got silver medals in 1896, second-place finishers got bronze medallions and third-place finishers received nothing – held the lead from early in the race through to well past the halfway point.
However, shortly after 25km, Lermusiaux started to struggle and was overtaken by Australia’s Edwin Flack, who had earlier won the 800m and 1500m titles, before dropping out at around 30 kilometres.
Behind the leaders, the 24-year-old Louis had slowly worked his way through the field after being seven minutes down on Lermusiaux at the halfway point and, according to reports, from 32 kilometres he took the lead and was never headed.
From 36km, he was without any serious rivals, with an exhausted Flack dropping out with just three kilometres to go, and Louis entered the Panathenaikon Stadium just before 5pm local time to 60,000 cheering countrymen including the King of Greece – and accompanied over the final metres on the track by Prince George and Crown Prince Constantine – before crossing the line in 2:58:50.
More than seven minutes behind Louis, fellow Greek Charilaos Vasilakos finished second in 3:06:03 with Hungary’s Gyula Kellner third, the latter being the only non-Greek finisher. There was initially a clean sweep for the host nation as the winner's namesake Spiridon Belokas crossed the finish-line in third but there was a subsequent protest from the Hungarian who successfully claimed Belokas had covered part of the course by carriage and was thus disqualified.
Louis, who can also be considered to be one of the most surprising Olympic marathon champions ever after having only finished fifth in the Greek trial race held over the same course a mere 17 days earlier, was awarded a silver cup donated by Breal the day after his victory to commemorate his triumph.
Nevertheless, unlike modern Olympic champion, Louis was not in a position to capitalise on his feat as there were no big city marathons with whom to then negotiate lucrative appearance fees although he did receive some gifts from merchants in Athens, including a horse and cart for his village, and he was never reported to have run another race again.
He returned to his native village of Amarousion, 15 kilometres northeast of Athens, to live out a life of relative obscurity after the furore of his success had gradually died down over the coming year, becoming a farmer and then a police officer.
Louis came back briefly into the public eye in 1926 when he was arrested on charges of falsifying military documents and imprisoned. After spending more than a year in jail, he was acquitted.
However, he was rediscovered by the German Olympic Committee prior to the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games and was the guest of honour there, notably presenting a laurel wreath cut from a grove at ancient Olympia to Adolf Hitler.
Louis died in 1940 at the age of 67 but the story of his historic Olympic victory lives on to this day and is one of the most well-known of all Olympic tales.
As an anecdote, the silver cup Louis was awarded after his win was sold for $860,000 in London on 18 April 2012. The trophy, 15 centimetres high, broke what was then the auction record for Olympic memorabilia.