120 years, 120 stories (Part 5) : The genesis of marathon & the story of Spiridon Louis


From the golden pages of Olympics history, we bring to you yet another fascinating story. This story is about the first ever Marathon event.

The concept of Marathon came from the Greek legend Pheidippides, a messenger who was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to carry the word of victory of the Greek over the Persians. Pheidippides died immediately after exclaiming “nenikekamen” meaning “we have won”.

The first ever Marathon race was organized by Greek colonel Papadiamantopoulos as a qualifying race for the would-be participants in the Olympics. Vasilakos emerged the winner, finishing the race in 3 hours, 18 minutes. Two weeks later, another such qualifying race was organized in which a water-carrier named Louis took part and crossed the line, finishing fifth. But he never knew that he would later be crowned as the first Olympic Marathon champion.

Spyridon Louis was born in the town of Marousi, a village in the north of Athens. His father sold mineral water to Athens and Louis helped him by transporting it by running from his hometown to Athens on bare feet. Colonel Papadimantopoulos came to know about Louis’ running talents and convinced him in participating the second qualifying race.

A month after the first ever Marathon race, on 10 April 1896, the first Olympic marathon was held. The race started off in Marathon and ended in the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, covering a distance of 40 kilometres (25 miles). 17 participants from 5 countries took part in the competition. Among them, 13 were from the home nation and one participant each from Hungary, Australia, France and USA.

The race started with Lermusiaux, the Frenchman taking the lead until he was completely exhausted and pulled off at the 32 kilometer mark. Louis who started slow was reported to have made a stop at a local inn to get a glass of wine. Some say he got a glass of cognac from his future father-in-law. He then restarted the race with renewed vigour and took the lead a few kilometres from the Panathinaiko Stadium. Upon entering the stadium he was greeted with ”Hellene Hellene” by the cheering crowd. He finished strong with a time of 2 hours, 58 minutes. This was the first time a Greek won an athletics event in the 1896 Athens Olympic. Vasilakos came second, clocking 3 hours, 6 minutes and Kellner from Hungary finished soon after, claiming the third spot.

Only 8 of the 17 competitors could finish the race. Interestingly, Stamata Revithi, a Greek woman, ran the Marathon a day later and completed it in approximately 5 hours, 30 minutes. She wanted to take part in the main event but was not allowed to run since women were excluded from participation. It had to wait for another 88 years when women were allowed to participate in the Marathon for the first time in the 1984 Olympics. USA athlete Joan Benoit was the first to touch the finishing line in 2 hours, 24 minutes.


(You may also like: The story of first swimming champion)

Photo by JAWS123