Thursday, October 25, 2012

Runners You Should Know: Spyridon Louis

In my post on Pheidippides, I described the invention of the marathon by the organizers of the first modern Olympic Games. What I didn't mention was the man who won that first marathon: Spyridon Louis.
I'm glad to see Pre finally got a haircut
In 1896, the organizers of the first modern Olympic Games were trying to come up with ideas for how to make their event more spectacular and memorable. A French philologist (which is Latin for "not even close to an athlete") and professor of comparative grammar (apparently that's a thing) named Michel BrĂ©al remembered the legend of Pheidippides (you know, the one where the guy dies from running 25 miles) and convinced the other organizers that including an apparently deadly run as the centerpiece of the games would be the perfect way to garner good press for their fledgling sporting event. I can only assume this narrowly beat out a philatelist's idea for a Pompeii-inspired event where athletes would run away from burning hot ash.

"Come on!  We can bill it as 'the hottest event of the games'!"
That March, Greece held a race to select its Olympic team. This would be the first "marathon" ever raced. A dozen men showed up, excited to participate and apparently completely unfamiliar with the legend they would be reenacting.

"I knew I should have paid more attention in Art History"
Finishing a disappointing fifth in that race was a poor water-carrier named Spyridon Louis. 
Basically this guy, but in a fetching skirt and vest combo
Spyridon initially didn't make the Greek team due to his lackluster finish. However, when Greece figured out that no one had thought to limit the number of athletes from each country they added Spyridon along with just about anyone else who wanted to run. When the Olympic race was held the following month there were 17 runners at the starting line, 13 of them from Greece. 


Distance running took a giant leap forward when we got rid of the woolen underwear
There were several runners who had recently medaled in track events and when the race started they took off at a blistering speed. Halfway through the race the leader was the Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux who had reached the halfway point in 55 minutes, which even modern Kenyans would describe as "retardedly fast." (The French were really determined to have someone die in this race.) For his part, Spyridon was enjoying himself at the back of the pack, stopping along the way for some fruit and a glass of either wine or brandy (or possibly both).

Pictured: the 1896 Olympic marathon
Eventually Lermusiaux and the other front-runners slowed, collapsed, and were carried from the course in a melodramatic routine that actually became the norm during the first several Olympics. (Hey, if you're going to DNF, you might as well get a free ride and some attention out of it.) Spyridon, invigorated from his Jeff-Galloway-meets-Bluto-from-Animal-House pacing strategy, steadily picked off runners until he settled into second place behind the Australian Edwin Flack (gold medalist in the 800 and 1500 meters), who his Spydy sense told him would soon fade. Sure enough, a mile later Flack slowed, staggered and (you guessed it), collapsed and was carried from the course.

Now on the home stretch, Spyridon ran through the cheering crowds of Athens and into the stadium, where he finished in 2:58:50, which even by today's standards is an impressive time for an amateur runner (although at 24.8 miles, the course was a little short of IAAF norms.) To the crowd's added delight, the top three finishers were all Greek, although the bronze medalist was later disqualified for having traveled part of the way in a carriage. 


Not looking so bad now, am I?
Spyridon became a national celebrity but he never took advantage of his fame and after the Olympics simply returned to working in his village (hey, the water isn't going to carry itself). According to one story, the King of Greece offered him anything he wanted and Spyridon asked for a donkey and carriage to help in his business. 


Because what more does a man need in life, really?
He also never raced again. In fact, the two marathons in March and April of 1896 were the only races Spyridon Louis ever ran. 

Today Spyridon's memory lives on in a profoundly weird-looking pair of shoes named after him. Somehow I don't think he would mind, mainly because they look like something he would wear. 

"I know just the vest to go with these"

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Read my other posts about Runners You Should Know
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