Why you should care
Because long before Usain Bolt, there was Spyridon Louis.
Soon after winning the first modern-day Olympic marathon at the 1896 Summer Games, the newly crowned champion was accused of cheating. Some of the biggest sporting powerhouses at the time — France, Australia and the United States — couldn’t accept that their well-trained athletes had lost to an unknown water carrier from Athens, so they accused him of covering part of the course by carriage. But the allegations against Spyridon “Spyros” Louis were totally unfounded, and the young Greek and only competitor to ever run a marathon in a fustanella — a traditional skirtlike garment worn by men in the Balkans — would go on to become a sporting icon.
Born to a poor peasant family in Marousi, a northern suburb of Athens, Louis spent most of his youth carrying water, helping his father, who worked as a water carrier, to provide for their family. He would cover great distances daily while sporting jugs of water on his shoulders. Later, as he served in the military, his incredible stamina and athleticism impressed his superiors. But it was his love for a woman, not his strength, that motivated him to take part in the Olympics, says Greek historian Dimitrios Masouris. “Louis wasn’t interested in athletic competition,” he says, noting how the young man simply “wanted to win so he could impress the prettiest girl in Marousi: Helen.”
The pandemonium was the pent-up remembrance of the whole glorious past manifested in that runner, the vision of the Greek.
Louis almost didn’t make it to the Olympics. A few weeks before the games, he finished fifth in the qualifying race, owing to his inexperience in organized athletic events. Fortunately, he was still able to take part in the marathon because Greece, as the host nation, could register more athletes than any other country, an Olympic tradition that continues today.
Local fans had been waiting for the marathon more than any other event because of its historical connection to the legend of the messenger Pheidippides, who ran from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Athenian victory in the Battle of Marathon. They were also eager because they wanted redemption: American athlete Robert Garrett had already won the gold medal in the discus throw, considered the most revered of the ancient Olympic events, which had been a particularly painful blow to the Greeks.
The heavy favorites were Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux, who had won bronze in the 1,500-meter final and was leading for the better part of the marathon, and Australian legend Edwin Flack, who had already won gold in the 800 and 1,500-meter events. But both men collapsed, unable to continue, while the durable Louis prevailed. When Louis approached the Panathenaic Stadium and the finish, the pandemonium raised by the 80,000 Greek fans present was described by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the most famous of the first Olympiad’s organizers, as “the pent-up remembrance of the whole glorious past manifested in that runner, the vision of the Greek.” The crowd was so delirious that Louis had to be rescued from the throngs, which prompted King George I’s royal entourage to lift the athlete and deliver him to the safety of his dressing room.
After the epic victory, George I, the king of Greece, was so proud that he offered Louis any prize he desired. To those who knew Louis well, what he asked for came as no surprise: a donkey-drawn carriage to aid him and his father in their water-carrying business. His simple request made it obvious that Louis had no intention of running after more Olympic glory. Instead, he married the woman he loved — Helen, the one he’d raced to impress — and continued living a simple life, working as a water carrier in his hometown.
Louis died poor and forgotten on March 26, 1940, but the significance of his victory and his legacy is greater than he probably ever realized. “Without Louis, the Athens games would have no epic hero, no master symbol to condense and express so richly so many historical themes,” says University of Chicago Professor John MacAloon, an authority on de Coubertin and the Olympic Games.
The modern Olympics, he points out, might not have survived the traumas of the following decade without the “symbolic capital of those ‘indescribable’ and ‘unforgettable’ moments.” Louis, more than anyone apart from de Coubertin, MacAloon tells OZY, “created the modern Olympic Games.”