by Richard Armstrong

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Today, we run through the history of the marathon. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The marathon is the ultimate runner’s challenge; it’s a grueling event that tests the limits of human endurance over 26 miles. But unlike the javelin, the discus, or the shorter running events, the marathon was not a part of the original Greek Olympics at Olympia. It’s a modern invention.

Louis in 1896. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When the modern Olympics were reinstituted in Athens in 1896, the organizers were looking for an event that would have a real sense of history. So a French scholar seized on the legend of Pheidippides. The story goes that after the Athenians defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Pheidippides, who’d fought in the battle, ran all the way to Athens to announce the victory. He arrived and shouted, “We’ve won!”—then dropped dead. This certainly wouldn’t be a good precedent for an athletic event; it may not even be a true story. Surely someone could’ve lent him a horse! Moreover, it had nothing to do with the ancient Olympics; it was an Athenian story. But it was such a thrilling tale that the organizers went for it.

However, what really happened at the first Marathon in 1896 is the stuff of fairy tales. There was a runner who broke into the competition quite late. His name was Spyridon Louis. He was literally a nobody—a water carrier from a town outside Athens. He’d recently done his military service, and his commanding officer just happened to be the man organizing the qualifying trials for the marathon. The colonel convinced Louis to try out; but he came in fifth in the qualifying race. At the outset, Louis was far from favored to win.

Modern Statue of Pheidippides along the Marathon Road. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When the first Olympic marathon was held, there were only 17 competitors: 13 Greeks, and 4 foreigners. Two early leaders in the race had won medals in shorter competitions; but it became apparent the marathon was a very different sort of race. The Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux led for quite a while; but after 19 miles…he dropped out. Then Australian Edwin Flack led for a time; he’d already won gold in the 800 and 1500-meter races. But then he collapsed—he’d never run more than a ten-mile race in his life.

Against all odds, Louis was far in the lead as he entered Athens, and thousands of Greek spectators in the all-marble Olympic stadium were ecstatic. The Greeks’d been disappointed that the American team dominated in the track and field events. They felt they’d little to show for their efforts to bring the Olympics back to glory. But now finally, a Greek was winning an event, and it was the most historic and epic one at that. Louis was accompanied on his final lap by two Greek princes, who ran cheering him on. Stunned by his own victory, Louis was warmly greeted by the King of Greece himself, who offered him whatever he wanted: all he could think of was a new wagon to carry water.

Louis at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The ancient poet Pindar said of the Olympics, “the man attended by your splendid prize of honor has great glory forever” (Olympian 8.10-11). Well, ok, you might not have heard of Spyridon Louis. But let’s give this underdog his moment one more time. Bravo, Spiro! Bravo!

I’m Richard Armstrong at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Note: The qualifying trials for the Olympic Marathon of 1896 were the first-ever official marathon races. The route itself was classic: literally from Marathon on the coast to Athens, a distance of 25 miles or 40 kilometers in this first race. Though it was shorter than today’s course by over a mile, this first generation of runners would find it hard to do in under 3 hours. Samuel Wanjiru’s current record for the 26-mile event stands at 2:06, set in 2008. But Louis wasn’t a trained athlete, only a laborer whose “training” was running after a horse cart every day.

The Marathon to Athens course is now run annually as the 42 km Athens Classic Marathon; in 2015, 43,000 runners participated—a far cry from the 17 of 1896.

A movie, It Happened in Athens, was made in 1962 based on the feat of Spyridon Louis, starring Trax Colton (a flash-in-the-pan heartthrob) as Louis and featuring Jane Mansfield. Louis is transformed from water-carrier to shepherd boy, whose dog runs the marathon with him. The whole film is available here:

The silver cup presented to Louis was bought at auction by the Niarchos Foundation for $860,000 in 2012. Louis’ grandson sold it to provide for his children in these economically difficult times.

As for the story about Pheidippides (or Philippides), the doubt about its authenticity stems from the fact that there is no 5th century BCE source for it. Herodotus relates that a certain professional runner named Philippides ran all the way to Sparta to enlist their aid against the Persians (Histories 6.105-106) and had an encounter with the god Pan; but there is no story relating the news of the victory. The story is related by Plutarch (On the Glory of the Athenians 3, 347c-d) on the authority of Heraclides Ponticus (c. 390-310 BCE), but the runner’s name is Thersippus or Eucles. The 19th century fame of the story was in large measure due to Robert Browning’s poem “Pheidippides,” published in 1879.

Lennartz, Karl and Stephen Wassong. 2004. “Athens 1896.” Encyclopedia of the Modern Olympic Movement, ed. by John E. Findling and Kimberly D. Pelle. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 17-25

Martin, David E. and Roger W. H Gynn. 2000. The Olympic Marathon: The History and Drama of Sport’s Most Challenging Event. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.

Young, David C. 1996. The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP.

This episode was first aired on August 2, 2016