The original marathon man

This month's Games will provide the usual array of thrills, spills and unlikely heroes. But nothing will match the passion, drama and excitement of one exceptional event in the first modern Olympics in 1896. As eyes turn to Athens once again, David Randall recalls the most incredible sporting story of all

Sunday 08 August 2004 00:00

It was obvious from its first moments that this day was to be very special. Train after train brought huge numbers of people from the provinces to Athens, the entire city seemed to be up and about extra early, and even at 9am there was hardly an amaxa, the little Greek taxis, to be had. It was also the first brilliant sunny morning of the 1896 Games, and long before the stadium opening at 10am for the morning's events, there were streams of people making their way towards it. Everywhere the talk was only of one thing. Greece, this nation recovering from bankruptcy that had somehow found the money and the will to revive the Olympic Games after 1,500 years, had watched Americans and Britons, Australians and Germans win event after event. Not a single victory had been theirs. But now, today, on the fifth day of the Games, was the marathon, an event, they felt, more Greek than the Parthenon itself. The yearning for a win made the city positively seethe. Athens was now an entire population in the delirium stage of marathon fever.

The large crowd that was in the stadium where the gymnastics was being resumed had as much a new-found enthusiasm for the sport of spinning round on parallel bars, as a need to stake a claim to their seats. By 1pm there were huge swarms of people making their way to the stadium. Those who had no tickets went on the hills surrounding the arena, those who could not find a place there added themselves to those lining the route of the marathon, and those who could find no place there milled in large numbers outside the entrance to the stadium, hoping to catch a sight of something.

At the village of Marathon, the waiting was nearly over. Most of the Greek entrants had attended a church service, where prayers were offered up for a home win. One group of Greek runners, from the village of Marousi and surrounds, went for a little run round Marathon in the new shoes their local communities had bought for them. Among them was Spiridon Louis, who had only qualified for the marathon in the trial that the Greeks held the previous Saturday. According to his account, when they got back to their inn from their trot round the village, a doctor was waiting for them with a little hammer. He proceeded to give each man a sharp rap or two on the knee, though to what purpose, the runners could not imagine. "He laughed when my knee shot up," Louis later recalled, "and he came back to me after he was finished with all the others and gave my knee a fourth knock. 'He might make it,' I heard him saying to a man from the committee." This strange medical ritual, plus the milk that was served mid-morning, and the couple of beers each a little later, were just part of the precautions the organisers took to ensure that, if anyone did expire on the road to Athens, it would not be for want of attention. Several medical wagons would follow the field throughout its course, and for each runner there were two accompanying soldiers on horseback, as much, one suspects, to ensure no one hitched a ride as to cater for any emergencies.

So around 1.30pm there was quite a crowd assembled on the bridge at Marathon. Here, at 2pm, the race would start, and in it would be 17 runners: 13 Greeks; Gyula Kellner of Hungary; Edwin Flack of Australia; Albin Lermusiaux of France; and Arthur Blake of America. The last three, having already shown their speed over 800m and 1,500m, were especially feared by the home crowds. Ahead of them lay 42km (24 miles, 1,500 yards) of rough hilly road, at first along the coast, and then turning west to climb into the hills before dropping down into Athens. From noon this road had been cleared of all traffic, and mounted patrols of cavalrymen would ensure throughout the afternoon that not a single cart, sheep, goat, horse, or itinerant pedestrian would breach this embargo.

As 2pm approached, the runners were lined up. A photo taken just before this moment shows them in an assortment of dress, some wearing singlets, others in an undershirt, some in sports caps, others wearing larger, heavy-looking cloth caps. Children perch on nearby roofs to see what their parents no doubt assured them would be an historic moment. The runners had drawn lots to see which position they would occupy in the four starting rows, and they quickly sorted themselves out. The little Frenchman Lermusiaux was in the front rank of five men, and two of the Greeks, including Louis, his knees now presumably knocking of their own accord, were at the back. The starter, Major-General Papadiamantopoulos mounted his horse, cleared his throat and, in his best military voice, gave short speeches in Greek and French describing the course. Then he checked that all was ready, checked again and, at three minutes 30 seconds before the hour, fired his pistol, and they were off.

Lermusiaux was immediately into the lead, followed by Flack, Blake and, a little way back, a group of four Greeks, including Ioannis Lavrentis, the winner of one of the trials, and the Hungarian. The first 10km or so were relatively gentle with generally a downhill slope, and Lermusiaux set a torrid pace, soon establishing quite a lead. Flack's strategy, described in a letter after the race, was "not to force the pace but run with the Greeks and remain with them until about 4km from home when I hoped I would be able to make the running as I had more pace than any of them". But the ever-lengthening lead of Lermusiaux took the Frenchman out of sight, and, after 6 or 7km, Flack decided to speed up, lest he lose contact with the leader altogether.

Bringing up the rear, Louis the Greek was also thinking that it was time to move up a gear, and he kicked away from his group at the back and closed on Georgios Gregoriou. "Hello fellow countryman," he called out. "How goes it? It's me, Louis from Marousi." Gregoriou's face was as red as a lobster. "Don't talk," he choked. "Talking is bad!" Louis later recalled: "What's this blockhead grumbling about I thought as I made a few long strides and overtook him. When I turned round after a while, to look for him, he had fallen far behind." Already the race was beginning to take its toll.

In the stadium, the Greek royal family had arrived, and the first events were about to begin. These were the final of the 100m, won by the American Tom Burke, the only man to use the crouching start; and the high jump, claimed by Ellery Clark, a boyish American law student. So it was two trips up the flagpole for the Stars and Stripes in less than 40 minutes. Heaven knows, the crowd must have thought, what mince-meat Blake was now making of their marathon entrants. The leading runners had now reached Pikermi, nearly 15km into the race. Lermusiaux was fully 3km ahead of the field, having got to the village in 52 minutes, which would be a pretty slick pace even today. He was plainly going too fast. Behind him, Flack, Blake and Kellner had held their positions ahead of the leading Greek, Lavrentis; and some way behind him were other groups of his compatriots, as yet unprovoked by the enthusiastic villagers lining the route into matching Lermusiaux's murderous speed. Among those keeping his head was Louis. When he reached Pikermi, there waiting by the road was his stepfather who handed him a beaker of wine and a red Easter egg. "Here Spyros eat and drink, that will do you good," he shouted. While he paused to drink, Louis told the onlookers that he could yet catch the leaders.

After Pikermi the course became a prolonged incline, climbing nearly 150m in 10km of road, and it duly took its toll. Louis, perhaps fortified by the wine, kicked on and soon passed Dimitrios Christopoulos, who told him that all the group of Greeks immediately ahead of him had now dropped out. Gone, too, was Blake, falling out at the 23km mark with his feet a bloody mess. One minute he had been running and then "the next thing I knew I was jolting along in the bottom of a wagon". The uphill section sapped the speed of Kellner and Lavrentis, too, and, as they slowed, Charilaos

Vasilakos overtook them, now not only the leading Greek runner ahead of Spiridon Velocas, Demetrios Deyannis and Louis, but third overall. Vasilakos was, however, still considerably behind the two leaders. Meanwhile in the stadium, the final of the 110m hurdles brought together Thomas Curtis of the US and the man he called "the most confident athlete I'd ever met", Britain's Grantley Goulding, who wore his athletics medals on his chest, like a war hero soliciting applause. Curtis had the speed, and Goulding the style. Speed won, by a mere 2ft.

As the Stars and Stripes was raised yet again in the arena, the marathon was moving into its critical stages. At 3.34pm, Lermusiaux reached Harvati where he received the crown prepared by the villagers for the first runner to arrive there, and passed under the triumphal arches put up by spectators. But Flack was gaining on him. The gap that had been three minutes a short while ago was now down to one minute, with Vasilakos and Louis a further six minutes behind. Shortly after the village and around the 20-mile mark, Lermusiaux stopped and was passed by the Australian. Flack now had a comfortable lead, and, with only 10km left in the race, a messenger cycled off to the stadium to report that Flack's victory now seems assured.

Behind them, Louis had caught Vasilakos, and soon noticed his rival was slowing. So, cheered on by supporters from his home village, he accelerated away from his compatriot. He was now the leading Greek. "Courage Louis! You've got only foreigners in front of you now!" shouted an infantry sergeant as the runner went past him, and then overtook Kellner and the staggering Lermusiaux. He was now second, and gaining on Flack. Louis later reported: "For the first time I was full of ambition. A foreigner should not come first in this race! * I made my strides as long as possible. I kept coming closer to the Australian but he was a damned tough guy." Flack was now suffering from the terrible early pace. "I then began to feel rather done in myself and I had the feeling that I should not be able to finish," he later wrote.

The last thing he needed now, five miles from the finish, was Louis at his shoulder, but that is what he got. And more than that it was a Louis looking, in Flack's words, "very fresh and running well". Louis later said: "I don't know whether it was 100m, 200m or 500m that the Australian and I were fighting each other side by side. I looked at him perpetually out of the corner of an eye. And I didn't let him gain 1m's ground on me. When he wanted to take the lead and shake me off I stayed with him and in the end he carried on breathlessly falling further and further behind." Flack was now finished. "I staggered on for another 100 yards... then stopped as I should have fallen if I had gone any further." He was soon in the ambulance cart, where he promptly passed out. There was now just 5km to go and a Greek was in the lead.

The crowd in the stadium knew nothing of this, and in the absence of any news, speculated, worried and kept looking at their watches. The pole vault had started but minds were elsewhere. A cyclist arrived with the news that Flack was now leading, heartbreaking news that spread like a Mexican wave around the arena. It was, the more rational ones among them must have thought, only to be expected. After all, had they not seen in this stadium how much better than Greeks were the Americans and Australians and Germans? And in the time it took for the news to do a lap of the arena, the stadium's expectant buzz became just a subdued background noise.

Little did the crowd know that Flack was even now being carted towards them in the hospital wagon. Ahead of him, Louis, with the bounce of a man who has conserved his strength was running on strongly. Major-General Papadiamantopoulos came alongside him on his horse. He offered Louis a drink. The runner asked for water but was given Cognac. He spat it out. The major offered him his handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face. Louis took it, dropped it, and bent to pick it up. "Let it lie there, Louis! Just let it lie! Spare your energy and run slower, so that you hold out till you reach the stadium!"

Even the major was getting nervous now. But he had no need to be. Louis had paced himself perfectly, and seems to have calculated what he could expect at every stage in the race. Well, almost everything; for nothing could have prepared him for what came next: the jubilant noise and euphoria of the crowds along the route as he approached Athens. As Louis ran down the street of Herodes Attikos, Papadiamantopoulos, still riding beside him, leant down to tell him that he would carry the news to the stadium. He kicked his spurs into his horse and rode off, leaving Louis to press on down streets that were now a gauntlet of frenzied crowds.

No word of this had reached the stadium, dulled as it was by reports of Flack's lead. Then a disturbance was heard at the entrance. It was a horseman, in the uniform of a major-general. The craning spectators saw him approach the royal box and say something. They saw the king half rise from his seat, lean forwards to hear the message, turn to the rest of the royal party, and then they heard and saw the crowd around the box start cheering wildly. "What are they shouting?" voices the other side of the stadium must have asked. Soon there was no doubt. "Hellene! Hellene!" ("A Greek! A Greek!). Within seconds the cheers had been taken up by the entire crowd. "Hellene! Hellene!" "Hellene!" And no sooner did the first wave of roars die down than a cannon shot was heard in the distance. It was the signal that the leader was just a short distance away. Now the tens of thousands in the stadium and the hordes lining the final kilometres were synchronised. In minutes, the milling throng outside the stadium entrance knew; and so did the masses on the hill overlooking the arena. It was a Greek!

Not even the vaulters could concentrate on anything else. They lay down their poles to await the arrival of a man now being carried along by the ecstasy of the roadside crowds. For the stadium, there must have been about 10 minutes of delicious anticipation before the first signs came that a runner was approaching. In the bluff above the arena, in among the dense press of people, first one arm, and then many, could be seen pointing. The whole stadium was on their feet now, every eye trained on the entrance. There was a noise of cheering outside. It got louder. And then, after a momentary pause - a tantalising, knuckle-clenching, lip-chewing pause - there came into the arena a lean, sweat-stained, dust-covered figure in the blue and white of Greece.

The stadium erupted. Seventy thousand individuals cheered, each at their own pitch, some for the first time in their lives, and every one of them at the greatest volume their lungs could muster. It was the sound of a nation's pent-up desire for victory being released. A cloud of white doves was liberated. Thousands of hats were in the air. Handkerchiefs were waved until they flew from the hand. Little Greek flags, kept hidden until now, were pulled from pockets and held aloft, kissed, waggled, or thrown to the skies. Olive branches and flowers rained down from the upper tiers. High up in the arena, where the thick, dark crowd looks like bees massing on a comb, people were jumping up and down, and an entire hill seemed to be on the move. And in the royal box stood a figure in uniform, waving his military cap with such abandon that the peak came away in his hand. It was the King, transformed by a mere peasant into just one of a mad, cheering, delirious, happy mob.

On the track, Louis was approaching the line surrounded by a pushing, shouting, back-slapping bodyguard of princes and officials. As he crossed the line, he was picked up by the Crown Prince and Prince George and carried in triumph to the royal box, where the King, his damaged cap in one hand, greeted him with the other. As the Greek flag was raised to the top of the pole, and the number 17 chalked victoriously on the blackboard, Louis was borne off on the shoulders of the crowd towards the changing-rooms. He was the first Greek athletics champion in 1,500 years.

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