Monday 12 January 2015


Panathenaic Stadium where I had the opportunity to run a few meters retracing Spiridon Louis route 
When I ran those 200 metres to the finish line on the Panathenaic stadium in Athens, I had only one motive - I wanted to retrace an historic path by Spiridon Louis whose victory at the Marathon event in 1896 heralded the beginning of modern Olympics.
Those humble beginnings to Spiridon Louis began in Marousi where his livelihood was earned through transporting fresh water to the inhabitants of Athens - a task that required endurance at a time when water filled tanks was a dream. It wasn't a surprise when he chose a horse and a cart from the Greek King as a part of a 'promise' which allowed winners to be granted with a wish. He knew 'fame' had an expiry date and he went about his usual business after being hailed as 'Greek's national hero' post the 1896 Olympics.

Michel Breal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin used his knowledge of history to good use when the first modern Olympic Games were being planned in 1894. He suggested Coubertin to include long distance running competition (25.8 miles) for the Olympics which would add local interest. Not surprisingly, the organisers were delighted with this proposal. The legend of 'Pheidippides' would now be re-lived. The distance 25.8 miles equivalent to 40 km happens to be the approximate distance from the plains of Marathon to the city of Athens. Pheidippides, in his role as a messenger ran 40 km to bear the surprise news of Greek's victory over invading Persians. He blurted out a message which is translated "Rejoice, we conquer" before he collapsed and died. This legend lived on through centuries from the time of Ancient Greece to the turn of 19th century and now an integral part of the Olympic movement.

Before the start of the Olympics, the locals had a disappointing games with no medals to their tally. All hopes were on the Marathon event. As a means to motivate their countrymen, a lot of rewards were promised for a Greek winner. Wealthy and noblemen in and around Athens threw in their offers before the event began. Odds for a Greek win were high as the 21 participants out of 25 finalists were from Greece. However, if anything to go by the performance of American and Australian athletes at the earlier events, a Greek win would surely be an extraordinary effort.

The initial part of the race belonged to the trio of non-Greeks who were the three medallists from the 1500m event. Frenchmen Albin Lermusiaux led the pack for more than 3/4th the distance. Behind him was the Australian Edwin Flack and the American Arthur Blake. The only other non-Greek participant was from Hungary and he was some distance away. The American was the first to pull out after 23 laps and then it was the Frenchmen nine laps later. Edwin Flack who already had two gold medals to his name from the games had eight more kilometers to claim glory. However, he was in an unknown territory of running this long a distance. He was stretching his physical limits and stopped his race just three kilometers from the finish. The news had spread - it was a Greek who was now in the lead and unlike others, his daily job allowed him to endure and not collapse like the other race favourites. He entered the Panathenaic stadium with crowd cheering every step he ran and finished the race just short of 3 hours. Spiridon Louis victorious and the first success story of Olympic movement was scripted!
Spiridon Louis at the 1896 Olympics 

Going by his grandson's words, Spiridon Louis accepted none of the cash rich rewards and instead opted just for a cart and a horse. Along with the unofficial rewards, he was presented with the Breal's Silver Cup for winning the marathon. He quietly went back to his hometown Marousi, married his girlfriend and led a low-profile life farming and later as a local police officer. His final public appearance also happened to be at the Olympics, in Berlin 40 years later where he was received with much fanfare. He recalled that hour which made him a Greek hero for life -  “That hour was something unimaginable and it still appears to me in my memory like a dream… Twigs and flowers were raining down on me. Everybody was calling out my name and throwing their hats in the air…” 

A Greek winning the prestigious and historic event positively pushed the cause of Olympic movement. For those scenes, the joyous crowd running short of praise for their newfound hero was just the final touch Pierre de Coubertin was looking for when he had envisioned the idea of 'Olympics' and its revival. If not for that emotional connection, I am pretty sure, Olympics as a concept would have taken a different course. 

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