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Spyridon Louis – Greece’s ultimate marathon man

Marathon runner Spyridon Louis - Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on a humble Greek hero who fulfilled his nation’s ancient yearning.

Spyridon Louis slept fitfully on the night of April 9, 1896. It wasn’t so much down to pre-race nerves as the bed bugs that riddled the mattress on which he’d been billeted at Marathon for the night. He was sure Pheidippides had to contend with many things in 496BC ahead of his legendary run to Athens with news of victory in battle over the Persians on the Plain of Marathon, but bedbugs probably wasn’t one of them.

He sat up and places his feet on the floor. He shouldn’t really have drunk that wine the previous evening but refusing the mayor’s generous hospitality might have caused offence. Hadn’t he needed something to take away the juddering in his bones from the five-hour, 25-mile cart ride from Athens in the pouring rain? Anyway, all the athletes had indulged. It was good wine, after all.

His clothes, still rain-soaked when he’d gone to bed, had already dried in the morning sun. The race would be a hot one and the 2pm start meant they would be running in the day’s fiercest heat. He reached into his knapsack, pulled out his new shoes and held them in front of him. Light and sturdy, they’d been presented by the villagers at home in Marousi, a few miles north of Athens. People who had nothing, just like him, had pooled whatever they could to buy Louis some decent footwear just for this day. Then they’d gathered to see him off, because this race was special. For the villagers of Marousi and for Greeks across the world, today’s race transcended mere athletics.

They were crying out for a hero. Greece had won a clutch of the silver medals awarded for first place during that first Olympic Games of the modern era, but by fielding more competitors than the other 13 nations combined, a few wins were practically inevitable. Of most concern was how not one of those medals had been won in the athletics stadium. On the track and in the field Greece was supposed to revive a noble legacy dating back two millennia but so far they’d only collected a few copper medals for finishing second. The civilisation that gave athletics to the world was being eclipsed at its own games.

When the discus favourite Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos was beaten by an American shot putter who’d only entered on a whim it prompted deep national introspection. Losing the discus, that ultimate athletic symbol of the Classical age, to a novice from a country barely a century old had been a colossal blow to Hellenic pride.

That just left the marathon, devised specially for these games, meaning Spyridon Louis and his compatriots were running with the added weight of expectation on top of symbolism. This wasn’t just a race, it was an assertion of Greek historical and cultural identity.

Louis knew the handful of international competitors presented a stiff challenge to the homegrown athletes. There was Edwin Flack from Australia who had already won both the 800 and 1,500 metres. A Frenchman, Albin Lermusiaux, had never run this distance before but was a specialist in the longer track events, while from the USA Arthur Blake was a renowned cross-country runner who had finished second in the 1,500 metres. Louis had to put them out of his mind and just run as well as he knew how. In a 25 mile race beneath a blistering sun tactics would be an affectation: this would be about sheer endurance. After all, this run killed Pheidippides, who managed to blurt out his news before dropping dead on the spot.

Louis ate lightly, two boiled eggs and a cup of milk. That was always enough to fortify him ahead of a day’s work walking a mule loaded with fresh water along the dusty roads from Marousi to Athens and back, so it would suffice today. As he lined up at the start, number 17 pinned to the front of his shirt, he remembered his military service commanding officer on the day Louis forgot his sword and had to run six miles each way to fetch it, returning in well under two hours. “My horse is nothing compared to you,” said the astonished captain.

Lermusiaux set the pace, leading Flack, Blake and the Hungarian Kellner as they passed through the village of Pikermi at the halfway point. Louis and Charilaos Vasilakos were a few minutes behind, not out of the race but still with much to do. The heat became too much for the Frenchman who dropped out soon afterwards leaving Flack in the lead. Then Louis passed Kellner and Blake to establish himself in second place.

“Everyone was shouting, ‘Catch him, catch him. You must beat him. For Greece! For Greece!’” he recalled later. “Ambition took hold of me. I lengthened my stride and it did the trick.”

He caught Flack with four miles to go. For half a mile the two men ran together until Flack was overcome by exhaustion, collapsed at the side of the road and left Louis comfortably ahead, running the race of his life. At Ambelokipi his wife appeared at the roadside with a plate of sliced oranges. A mile later his father-in-law handed him a cognac to help him through the last miles.

In the stadium the mood was subdued. Messengers on horseback had brought news that a Frenchman was leading with the Greeks some way behind. Then, at around 4.30, rumours spread through the crowd that the Frenchman had dropped out and a Greek was leading. A few minutes later the Hellenic flag was run up a pole, confirming the speculation. The atmosphere became electric.

Shortly before 5pm there was a commotion at the gates at the end of the stadium. Soldiers were clearing the way and lining up in front of the stands. At two minutes to five the tiny figure of Spyridon Louis emerged from the shadows and into the sunlight, visibly exhausted, the number 17 on his shirt almost pulped with sweat, half running, half staggering around the track towards the finish line. Flowers, coins, even items of jewellery rained down on the track as the home crowd rose to the modern Pheidippides.

“It seemed as if all of Greek antiquity entered the stadium with him,” recalled Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, of Louis’ arrival. “This remains one of the most extraordinary spectacles in my memory.”

Two Greek princes vaulted down to the trackside and ran alongside their tottering hero for the final yards. He crossed the finish line in a time of two hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds, nearly eight minutes ahead of Vasilakos, still the biggest winning margin in Olympic marathon history. Dimitrios Velokas made it a Greek one-two-three when he came in third, at least until the last foreign athlete standing, Kellner the Hungarian in fourth place, pointed out he’d seen Velokas ride part of the way in a carriage.

By then wild celebrations had already begun in Athens and beyond as the news was telegraphed to the rest of the country. In a room under the stadium Louis was received by a beaming Queen Olga, then drank two cups of coffee, removed the winner’s laurel wreath from his head and climbed onto a table for a rub down. “I feel like I could still keep running all the way to Piraeus,” he told the masseur. Instead he returned in triumph to Marousi, wearing the shoes that carried him to victory.

Offers came flooding in: a lifetime of free shaves from a barber, a free meal every day for a year, free shoe polishing for life, even proposals of marriage, but Louis turned them all down. He hadn’t run that race for fame or its trappings, he’d run it for his nation.

There was one offer he couldn’t turn down, however. The King was keen to award Louis anything he wanted in recognition of an extraordinary feat. Some land, maybe? A mansion? Louis thought for a while then humbly submitted his request. If it wasn’t impinging excessively on his majesty’s generosity, he wondered, a cart would be useful for his work as a water carrier.

He never ran competitively again and lived quietly in Marousi until his death in 1940, shortly before the Italian invasion of Greece. He stepped back into the limelight only once, in 1936, 40 years after his triumph, when he led the Greek delegation in the opening parade of the Berlin Olympics.

“It still appears in my memory like a dream,” he said in Germany of his 1896 triumph. “Flowers were raining down on me and it seemed everyone was calling my name.”

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