How a humble Greek water carrier won the first Olympic marathon

With the Olympics starting tomorrow, Mick O’Hare looks back to the first modern marathon in Athens in 1896 and why a Greek just had to win it

Wednesday 21 July 2021 21:30
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<p>Fuelled by a whole cooked chicken and milk, Spyridon Louis beat his competitors in the 24.85 mile race from Marathon to Athens</p>

Fuelled by a whole cooked chicken and milk, Spyridon Louis beat his competitors in the 24.85 mile race from Marathon to Athens

The Greeks were getting a bit desperate, if not to say embarrassed. The spiritual home of the ancient Olympic Games had been an obvious choice for the first Olympics of the modern era in 1896, but despite the numerical superiority of its athletes, not a single Greek winner had emerged on the centrepiece of the games – the running track.

Greece had been expected to revive its formidable athletic legacy, dating back millennia, in the ancient, restored Panathenaic stadium in Athens. But there we were, on the final morning of the games and the civilisation that gave track and field athletics to the world was still waiting for its first champion. The Olympic motto, Faster, Higher, Stronger, sadly did not seem to apply to the host nation. When Greece failed to win the discus – an event linked with Hellenic antiquity and rarely ever competed for outside Greece – the sepulchral mood was complete.

Disappointment gave way to introspection. It looked like the Greeks had been vanquished at their own sport and on their home turf by a world that now ran faster, jumped higher and threw further. But there was one event remaining, and it was one that had been devised especially for the new Olympic era. The marathon race was intended to honour Greek sporting and military history. In 490BC, Pheidippides, the Greek soldier, ran almost 25 miles from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens with news of the Greek victory over the Persians. It is a story woven deep into Greek folklore.

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