Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: The very first Olympic Marathon...

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The very first Olympic Marathon...

The first Olympic games of the modern era were held in Athens in 1896. At the time, just 17 runners took part in the 40 kms (25 mile) Marathon race from the town of Marathon to the capital Athens and most of them were Greeks. The winner of the first Olympic Marahton was Spyridon Louis, a humble farm worker from a village near Athens. From toiling in the fields, Louis became a groom during military service, where he impressed his regimental major by running 20 kilometres before breakfast to retrieve his sword, compulsory for parade, having left it at home during weekend leave. The major promptly entered him for the marathon – the prime event introduced as an echo of the alleged run of Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC, bringing news of victory over Persia.

“The day before the race, a decrepit old horse and cart pulled some of us from Marusi, my home village, to Marathon,” said Louis. “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? “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.

There were only four foreigners among 17 starters – Australian Edwin Flack, Arthur Blake of America and Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux, the three medal winners in the earlier 1500metres, and Gyula Kellner of Hungary. Inexperienced for the longer race, the foreigners all started too fast. Lermusiaux, having held a huge lead by halfway, retired with cramp, as did Flack – who had been accompanied by the American embassy butler, wearing a top hat and riding a bicycle, but had to be taken back to Athens by carriage.

“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.” said Louis. Early reports of foreign leaders had dismayed a packed crowd at the main stadium, but then came news for the assembled 70,000 that their man was ahead. As Louis entered the arena, there was sheer pandemonium. “Women removed their jewellery to throw at his feet. A mounted band followed him into the stadium and Crown Princes Constantine and George ran alongside him to the finishing line.

Louis would recollect, when a celebrity guest at the Berlin Olympics of 1936: “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 Vasilaikos overtook him too and I said: ‘Let’s run together’. But Vasilaikos 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 34kms, an army officer fired his pistol in the air. Everyone cheered. For 500m we ran side by side but at last he got short of breath and fell further and further back.” Athenians had promised Louis free suits, free shaves and free meals for life if he won. The only sombre note was Kellner’s allegation that Dimitri Velokas, a Greek who had finished third, had taken a lift in a carriage for part of the route. He was stripped of his medal, and Kellner awarded bronze behind Vasilaikos.

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