There is a Greek expression to describe disappearing rapidly from sight. It is “yinomai Louis” (γίνομαι Λούης), which means literally “to becοme Louis”.
The reference is to Spyridon Louis and the irony is the celebrated home winner of the first Olympic marathon is a fixed point in Greek sporting culture. He will never vanish.
As the 125th anniversary of that landmark run from Marathon to Athens falls this coming Saturday (April 10), it is an apt time to reflect upon the impact of that performance by a 23-year-old shepherd and water carrier whose fame has endured so strongly that the Olympic Stadium for the 2004 Athens Games was named in his honour.
The marathon race was conceived by Michel Bréal, a French classicist and philologist who has been credited with founding modern semantics.
While his legacy to the world of thought included works such as The Myth of Oedipus and The Lessons of Words, he shaped a form of sporting life for future generations through a bright idea that he communicated to his friend Pierre de Coubertin, credited as the founder of the Modern Games.
After De Coubertin had won his argument to revive the Ancient Olympics in their native country of Greece and preparations were being made to get this new tradition underway in the nation’s capital in 1896, Bréal, who had spent so much of his professional life writing about mythological subjects, proposed that one of the races should be a long run from the Plain of Marathon to the Panathanaikos Stadium.
The proposed finish point was first established in the fourth century BC and was rebuilt in 143AD. It was later excavated and renovated and was ready to serve as the majestic epicentre of the new Games.
The notion was inspired by the legend of Pheidippides, the messenger said to have run the route to announce the Athenian victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. He announced to the Athens Assembly: “Joy! We win! Joy!” before dropping dead with exhaustion.
Scholars doubt the veracity of this story, given that the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, writing around 30 years after the event and said to have used some eyewitness accounts, made no mention of this Marathon to Athens effort.
He did, however, mention that on the eve of the battle a soldier-messenger named Pheidippedes had been sent on a two-day run from Athens to Sparta and back to request help for the Athenian cause.
Given that would have involved a total distance of around 260 miles – 420 kilometres – it is perhaps as well for future generations that this was not the run with which the herald was popularly associated.
A likely factor in Bréal’s brainwave may have been the popularity at the time of Robert Browning’s 1879 poem Pheidippedes:
“So, when Persia was dust, all cried, ‘To Acropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
Athens is saved, thank Pan, go shout!” He flung down his shield
ran like fire once more…
“till in he broke: “Rejoice, we conquer!”
The distance of the marathon race was set at around 40 kilometres – 24.85 miles – which was based on what was deemed the most likely route Pheidippedes would have followed. It was certainly unlike anything that would have been seen in the Ancient Olympics, where the longest distance contested was no more than five kilometres.
While Louis, who was born on January 12, 1873 in the Athenian suburb of Marousi, will always be remembered as the Athens 1896 marathon champion at the first Modern Olympics, he was not the first marathon winner.
That distinction fell to his fellow countryman Charilaos Vasilakos, who on March 22, 1896 won in a first trial race over the newly-created distance in 3 hours 18min and would go on to take silver behind Louis on the big day.
The Greeks were full of enthusiasm for the new event, and this was the first of two trials set up by Major Papadiamantopoulos, under whom Louis had previously served during his time doing military service from 1893 to 1895.
Louis – who was working at the time carrying the mineral water that his father sold in Athens – had not taken part in the first race, but his participation in the second one two weeks later was urgently requested by Papadiamantopoulos, who had been impressed by his hardiness and endurance during military manoeuvres.
The commanding officer had also been impressed when Louis ran 20km before breakfast to retrieve his sword, compulsory for parade, having left it at home during weekend leave.
The young man from the tough Athenian suburb of Marousi finished fifth in the second trial, which was enough to earn him entry into an Olympic field that numbered 13 Greeks and four foreigners.
The marathon took place on the last day of a Games at which no home athletics competitor had managed to win a gold – not even in the classic Greek Olympic event of the discus, where Robert Garrett of the United States had held off two Greek challengers – and the desire for a host nation victory had become acute.
Before assembling for the off at Marathon Bridge, the runners stayed the night in what was described as a “wretched” inn.
Louis and others were reported to have had a couple of beers before padding off on the dirt road that led through quiet pine forests and olive groves, set on their way by Colonel Papadiamantopoulos and bound for the marbled splendour of the stadium, crammed with raucous spectators.
In his Official History of the Olympic Games and IOC, 1894-2012, David Miller references an enterprising article published by the Magdeburg Sport Telegramm in its June 13, 1936 issue in which Louis recollects his Olympic experience.
“The day before the race, a decrepit old horse and cart pulled some of us from Marousi, my home village, to Marathon,” he said.
“It was raining, the journey took almost five hours and we were shaking with cold.
“The people of Marathon kindly lent us their jackets. That evening the Mayor plied us liberally to get us warm again, to keep our strength up for the race. ‘Is there anything else you want?’ he asked. ‘Yes!’ we cried. ‘Bring us some more wine, please’.
“That rainy Thursday, we celebrated in a way that probably no other athletes have ever done before a marathon.
“What did we know about abstaining during training? We sang and ate and laughed until late in the evening.
“The next morning, when the foreign runners were being massaged by their helpers, I said to my Greek companions, ‘let’s do a couple of laps round the village square to stretch our legs a bit’.
“In that way, we wore in the new shoes which the people of Marathon had bought for us. At 11 o’clock there was milk and two eggs for each man. By two we were in the street ready to start.
“Along the way my future father-in-law, standing by the roadside, offered me a beaker of wine. I slurped it down and felt much stronger.”
Albin Lermusiaux, a Frenchman who had earlier placed third in the 1500 metres, took a huge early lead.
He was followed by the respective 1500m gold and silver medallists, Edwin Flack of Australia, who had also won the 800m title, and Arthur Blake of the US.
Louis was well back in the field but appeared in confident mood as he stopped off in the town of Pikermi to take refreshment at the local inn.
According to his grandson, also named Spyridon Louis, his grandfather’s then girlfriend gave him half an orange and shortly afterwards he received “a glass of cognac from his future father-in-law”.
Thus fortified, he asked about the gap between himself and the leading runners and declared he would overtake them all.
Recalling his day of days while he was a guest at the Berlin Olympics of 1936, where he presented a laurel wreath from the sacred grove of Olympia to Adolf Hitler, Louis said he had been finishing his military service in Athens in 1895 and had been inspired by the sight of the stadium that was being prepared, and its finishing line.
Describing his experiences during the race, he added: “Early on the crowds were yelling, ‘go, Louis, go!’, which spurred me on. A mounted policeman who shouted ‘the only ones in front of you are foreigners’ had to ride at a brisk trot to keep up with me. A few hundred metres in front was Blake. I thought, ‘I’ll show him what’s what’ and stepped up the pace. It was enough.
“My colleague Charilaos Vasilakos overtook him too and I said ‘let’s run together’. But Vasilakos was exhausted and couldn’t keep up, so I left him and came up behind the Frenchman. He did his best but suddenly collapsed. He was all in.
“Once I was past him I realised the front runner, Flack, was in range. Everyone was bellowing ‘catch him, catch him!’
“When I caught up with him at 34 kilometres, an army officer fired his pistol in the air. Everyone cheered. For 500 metres we ran side by side but at last he got short of breath and fell further and further back.”
Flack – a London-based accountant who had won the 800m title the day before – had taken over the lead after 30km, and Lermusiaux had dropped out two kilometres later.
The Australian, who was accompanied by the American Embassy butler, wearing a top hat and riding a bicycle, had never previously run further than 10 miles, and after 37km he became the seventh and last man to drop out. Blake had retired after 23km.
When news came through to the stadium that the race was now being led by a home runner, the crowd began to chant “Hellene, Hellene!”
The Estia newspaper in Athens reported how “all the seats of the upper tiers, the space in between them, the hills opposite, the streets leading to the stadium were covered with thousands of people”.
De Coubertin estimated that the crowd was more than 60,000.
“Everyone’s eyes were filled with tears of joy. The stadium was in a frenzy,” Estia’s report added.
As Louis entered the stadium the crowd erupted with joy as Crown Prince Constantine and Prince George of Greece ran the final lap with him, one on each side, before he finished in 2:58:50. Women reportedly removed their jewellery to throw at his feet.
According to the official report of the Games “the Olympionic Victor was received with full honour”.
“The King rose from his seat and congratulated him most warmly on his success,” the report continued. “Some of the King’s aides-de-camp, and several members of the Committee went so far as to kiss and embrace the victor, who finally was carried in triumph to the retiring room under the vaulted entrance.
“The scene witnessed then inside the stadion cannot be easily described, even strangers were carried away by the general enthusiasm.”
De Coubertin said: “It seemed all of Greek antiquity entered the stadium with him. This was one of the most extraordinary spectacles in my memory.”
Two more Greek runners followed him home, with Vasilakos taking silver in 3:06:03 and Spiridon Belokas finishing third.
Hungary’s Gyula Kellner, the only non-Greek runner among the nine who completed the race, had finished fourth but subsequently lodged a protest, claiming Belokas had covered part of the course by carriage after having supposedly dropped out of the race.
The protest was upheld, and Belokas was disqualified, with Kellner taking bronze in a time of 3:06:35.
It was reported that the King offered Louis any reward he wanted and the newly established gold medallist asked for a donkey-drawn cart to help him distribute his father’s mineral water in the city.
He was offered many other gifts ranging from jewellery to free shaves for life from a local barber.
Louis also received a silver cup donated by the race’s originator, Bréal, who had written that the winner “would be considered a bearer of classical Greek tradition”.
The cup was kept by the Louis family for many years but, in 2012, a grandson auctioned the trophy which was acquired by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
At $861,129 (£622,615/€732,227), it was at the time the single most expensive piece of Olympic memorabilia. Quite a legacy from the humble water carrier.
Louis was also given a drinking vessel known as a skyphos, dating to around 600BC, which depicted two runners being watched by judges.
It remains a mystery how this later became part of the collection assembled by controversial Nazi archaeologist Werner Peek, who worked at Greek archaeological sites in the 1930s.
Many years later, Peek sold his collection of some 70 artefacts to the University of Münster in Germany and in September 2019 the skyphos was returned to Greece.
Louis never raced again after his Olympic triumph, returning instead to Marousi, with his donkey cart, and working later as a farmer and policeman.
Louis died on March 26, 1940. He had earlier recalled a victory that set the marathon properly in motion.
“That hour was something unimaginable and it still appears to me in my memory like a dream,” he said. “Twigs and flowers were raining down on me. Everybody was calling out my name and throwing their hats in the air.”
The Olympic marathon distance varied slightly at the Games held in 1900, 1904 and 1906, ranging from 40.26 to 40 to 41.86km. At the London Olympics of 1908, the distance increased to the oddly configured 26 miles 385 yards – 42.195km – in order to finish in front of the royal box in the White City stadium.
The 1912 and 1920 Olympic marathons varied again, respectively to 40.2 and 42.75km, but in time for the 1924 Paris Olympics the marathon distance became fixed – in or out of the Olympics – at the curious 1908 calculation. And there it has stayed.
While the distance may have wavered, the memory of Louis and his striking victory in the first major marathon the world had ever witnessed remains unfaded.
Such was the history – or romance – attached to it that the marathon was viewed by the Greek hosts as the most important event of the first Modern Olympics.
For a home runner to prove triumphant was profoundly important for the Greek nation.
Since Louis lived up to that momentous expectation the marathon has produced a succession of indelible sporting images – including the delirious Dorando Pietri weaving and falling on the brink of a victory at London 1908 that tantalisingly eluded him. Despite that, he is revered far more than the eventual winner, John Hayes of the US.
At the Berlin 1936 Olympics where Louis made his last big public appearance, the marathon was won by Sohn Kee-chung, a Korean forced – most reluctantly – to compete for the nation that had occupied his country, Japan.
At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Emil Zatopek, already champion over 5,000m and 10,000m, decided a crack at the longer run might be a good idea, and the Czech won by a distance in a race which saw him pass the then world record holder, Jim Peters of Britain, having enquired whether the pace was “too slow”.
Four years later Alain Mimoun of France, so often a silver medallist, had his golden moment in the marathon at the Melbourne Olympics – the marathon story was adding chapter after chapter.
The 1896 Athens Olympics also marked the first page in the story of the women’s marathon. A local woman, Stamata Revithi, attempted to enter the race but was turned down, ostensibly because her entry had missed the deadline.
The day after the marathon she set off to run the same route on her own, having got the local Mayor to testify what time she had set off, and having arranged for others to do the same for her at the other end.
After five-and-a-half hours she had reached the approach to the stadium but she was not allowed in after being stopped by Greek army officers.
No-one knows what became of that valiant and determined woman. But she had created history, just like her male compatriot had.
The first woman to complete an officially timed marathon race was British runner Violet Piercy, who clocked a time of 3:40 on October 3, 1926.
The memory runs forward to the sequence of photos showing Kathy Switzer running in the 1967 Boston Marathon – then a male-only event. She was harassed by an official seeking to stop her and take her number away, but he himself was then barged aside by Switzer’s boyfriend, who was also running.
It was not until 1984 that women were trusted to run a marathon at the Olympics – with home runner Joan Benoit winning the inaugural race at the Los Angeles Games in 2:24.52.
But women were fully established in big city marathons well before then. Last Monday (March 29) marked the 40th anniversary of the first running of the London Marathon, at which Britain’ very own Joyce Smith won the first of two titles.
By 1983 the event was moving through the gears in terms of women’s racing as the late Grete Waitz of Norway won in a world record of 2:25:29.
She added a second title in 1986, either side of which were two wins from another Norwegian great, Ingrid Kristiansen, who reduced the world record to 2:21:06 in 1985.
Looming ahead for the event – Liz McColgan, Tegla Loroupe, Paula Radcliffe, Mary Keitany, Brigid Kosgei…