Spyridon Louis in 1896
12 January 1873|
26 March 1940 (aged 67)|
|Achievements and titles|
|Personal best(s)||2:58:50 (1896)|
Spyridon "Spyros" Louis (also spelt Spiridon, Greek: Σπυρίδων "Σπύρος" Λούης, sometimes transliterated Loues; 12 January 1873 – 26 March 1940) was a Greek water-carrier who won the first modern-day Olympic marathon at the 1896 Summer Olympics, thereby becoming a national hero.
Louis was born in the town of Marousi, which is now a suburb to the north of Athens, into a poor family. Louis's father sold mineral water in Athens, at the time lacking a central water supply, and his son helped him by transporting it.
After Pierre de Coubertin's decision in 1894 to revive the Olympic Games, preparations were made to organise the first modern Olympics in Athens. One of the races would be the marathon, an event which had never been held before. It had been suggested by Frenchman Michel Bréal, who was inspired by the legend of the messenger Pheidippides, who had run from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Athenian victory in the Battle of Marathon.
The Greeks were very enthusiastic about this new event and decided to stage qualifying races for would-be Greek participants. These were organised by an army colonel, Papadiamantopoulos, who had been Louis' commanding officer during his military service (1893–1895). The first qualifying race—the first ever marathon race—was held on 22 March, and was won by Charilaos Vasilakos in 3 hours, 18 minutes. Louis participated in the second qualifying race, two weeks later, and placed fifth. Papadiamantopoulos, who knew of Louis' talent in running, had convinced him to try out.
The Olympic marathon was run on 10 April (or 29 March by the Julian Calendar then in use in Greece). The Greek public had been very enthusiastic about the Games, but were disappointed in the fact that no track and field event had yet been won by a Greek competitor. The victory in the discus throw, a classical Greek event, by the American Robert Garrett had been particularly painful. Because of its close connection with Greek history, the public yearned for the marathon to be won by one of their countrymen.
The marathon race
In Marathon, Colonel Papadiamantopoulos gave the starting signal for the small field, consisting of thirteen athletes from Greece and four from other nations. The early leader of the race, which led over dusty dirt roads along which throngs of Greeks had gathered to watch, was the Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux, who had earlier placed third in the 1500 metres. In the town of Pikermi, Louis is said to have made a stop at a local inn to drink a glass of wine. (Louis' grandson, also Spiridon Louis, has stated that this is incorrect; that his grandfather's girlfriend gave him half an orange and shortly afterwards he "got a glass of cognac from his future father-in-law.") After asking for the advantage of the other runners, he confidently declared he would overtake them all before the end.
After 26 km, Lermusiaux was exhausted and abandoned the race. The lead was taken over by Edwin Flack, an Australian who won the 800 and 1500 m races. Louis slowly closed in on Flack. The Australian, not used to running long distances, collapsed a few kilometers onwards, giving Louis the lead.
In the stadium, the atmosphere was tense, especially after a cyclist brought the news that the Australian was in the lead. But another messenger was sent out by the police as soon as Louis moved into the lead, and as the word spread that it was a Greek that led the race, the cry "Hellene, Hellene!" was taken up by rapturous spectators. When Louis finally arrived in a stadium erupting with joy, two Greek princes – Crown Prince Constantine and Prince George – rushed to meet him and accompanied him on his final lap for a finishing time of 2:58:50. Louis's victory set off wild celebrations, as described in the official report of the Games:
Here the Olympionic Victor was received with full honour; the King rose from his seat and congratulated him most warmly on his success. Some of the King’s aides-de-camp, and several members of the Committee went so far as to kiss and embrace the victor, who finally was carried in triumph to the retiring room under the vaulted entrance. The scene witnessed then inside the Stadion cannot be easily described, even strangers were carried away by the general enthusiasm.
Adding to the celebrations, two more Greek runners entered the stadium to finish in second and third place. Third place finisher Spyridon Belokas was later found to have covered part of the course by carriage and was disqualified; his place was taken by the Hungarian Gyula Kellner.
After the Olympics
After his victory, Louis received gifts from many countrymen, ranging from jewellery to a lifelong free shave at a barber shop. It is unknown whether Louis accepted all these gifts, although he did take back home the carriage he had asked of the king. He retreated to his home town, never again competing in running. He lived a quiet life, working as a farmer, and later as a local police officer.
His last public appearance came in 1936, when he was invited to be a guest of honour by the organizers of the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin. After bearing the standard of the Greek team during the opening ceremonies, he was received by Adolf Hitler and offered him an olive branch from Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, as a symbol of peace. Louis recalled the moments after his victory: "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 …"
Several months before the Italian invasion of Greece, Louis died. Many sports clubs in Greece and abroad still carry his name, as does the main stadium at the Athens Olympic Sports Complex, where the 2004 Summer Olympics were held, as well as the road passing outside (Spyros Louis Avenue).
The Jayne Mansfield movie It Happened in Athens is a heavily fictionalized take on Louis and the marathon, and his story is featured in the 1984 TV miniseries The First Olympics: Athens 1896. The expression in Greek: "yinomai Louis" (γίνομαι Λούης), translated as "to becοme Louis," means "tο disappear by running fast."
Breal's Silver Cup
The silver cup given to Louis at the first modern Olympic Games staged in Athens in 1896, was sold for £541,250 ($860,000) in London on 18 April 2012, breaking the auction record for Olympic memorabilia. Breal's Silver Cup stands just six inches tall and was offered for sale at Christie's by the grandson of the victor. The item was sold on the day Britain marked the 100 days' countdown to the 2012 London Olympics. Christie's called the auction "heated" and involved six bidders. The auctioneer later confirmed the buyer as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
The cup is currently displayed at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, a project of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, fulfilling the commitment of the foundation to make it available to the public and to share it with everyone, upon the project's completion. During the development of the project, the cup was temporarily displayed at the Acropolis Museum of Athens and the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, during a period that coincided with the International Marathon of Lausanne.
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