Olympics History >> Athens 1896 >> Key Moments

Athens 1896 - Key Moments

The historic triumph of Spiridon Louys

The marathon victory of the little shepherd from Amarousion in the first Olympic Games of the modern era was celebrated not only as a historic event, with Greece winning its only gold medal in athletics, but it also guaranteed the ecstatic Spiridon Louys an eternal place in the nation's sporting history.

His triumph, gained in front of huge crowds and during especially hot weather, was relevant enough for Louys to be given the honour of leading, as flag-bearer, the Greek delegation in the opening ceremony at the Berlin Games in 1936. That day, he handed an olive branch, a symbol of peace, to the chancellor Adolf Hitler.

What is ironic, however, is that Louys almost never got the chance to compete in this marathon (run between 38 and 40km) - included in the programme at the request of France, in memory of the soldier from Marathon.

Eliminated after the qualifying rounds, the Greek runner was nonetheless included in the race thanks to the support of his colonel. When the colonel was about to give a lecture to his soldiers, he discovered that he had forgotten his reading glasses.

Without hesitation, Louys offered to run the full 22km to collect the glasses - and promptly returned in record time to the delayed lecture.

This is how on April 10, 1896 Spiridon Louys, then aged 23, found himself among the 25 competitors at the entry road to the village of Marathon.

Following a disastrous start, the little shepherd began a spectacular comeback at the 32km mark while the majority of his adversaries began to feel the full extent of the race, and the weather.

Princely welcome

Resistant to the heat and the suffering of the marathon, the young Greek caught up with and overtook leader France's Albin Lermusiaux, then the Australian, Edwin Flack, winner of the 800m and the 1500m.

At the entry to the Olympic stadium in Athens, a cannon shot announced the winner's imminent arrival to the excited crowds. An enormous cheer went up when Spiridon Louys appeared on the track, waved on by an ecstatic Greek crowd crying: Hellas! Hellas!.

At the end of the race, King George's three sons rushed forward and, ignoring royal protocol hoisted the young shepherd aloft and carried him to the royal box to receive congratulations from the sovereign.

In 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds, Spiridon Louys recorded an historic victory in a race which, as part of their tradition, the Greeks were only too happy to embrace. In becoming the first marathon champion of the modern Olympiad, symbolically, Louys carried on the torch which the soldier Philippides carried from Marathon to the Athenians (a distance of 42km) to announce Themistocle's victory over the Persians.

Copyright 2008 Agence France-Presse.

Moment in Time