Profile Greek athlete Spiridon Louis became an instant part of Olympic history and a national hero when he won the first modern-day marathon at the inaugural Olympics in 1896, at Athens.
Louis was born on 12 January 1873 in a village just north of Athens. His father sold mineral water on the streets of Athens and young Spiridon was one of his water-carriers. This job helped Louis develop his running talents. During his military service (1893-1895), Louis’s commanding officer was a Major Papadiamantopoulos. When the decision was made to revive the Olympic Games, Papadiamantopoulos was asked to organise qualifying races for the Greek participants. He convinced Louis to take part and Spiridon qualified by finishing fifth in the second qualifying race.
On the day of the race, Louis was one of 13 Greek athletes to compete; restriction of entries from a country came much later. The field was completed by four foreigners, including Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux who took an early lead. But Lermusiaux, who had already won bronze in the 1500m track event, was forced to abandon the 42km race after 32 kilometres. When he actually collapsed, Australia’s Edwin Flack took over the lead, but the gold medal winner over 800m and 1500m also failed to finish.
Louis, however, was more used to the heat and dust and had also planned his race better. During the race he made a stopover in a town called Pikermi, where he had a glass of wine in a local inn and confidently declared he would overtake the leaders. Louis kept his word and when he arrived in the Olympic stadium in a winning time of 2:58:50 he received a real hero’s welcome. He was showered with accolades and gifts, including a donkey-drawn carriage from the King of Greece to help him in his water-carrying business. Louis immediately retired from sports and lived a quiet life as a farmer. He died in 1940.