Louis in traditional dress
Spiridon "Spiros" Louis (Σπύρος Λούης) (January 12, 1873 – March 26, 1940) was a Greek water-carrier who won the first modern-day 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 farmer's family. His name is transcribed from the Greek in various ways; his given name is also seen as Spyridon (Spyros) and his family name as Loues. Louis's father sold mineral water in Athens, at the time devoid of a central water supply, and his son helped him by transporting it.
After the decision to revive the Olympic Games in 1894, 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 Phidippides, 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 the 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 March 22, and was won by Charilaos Vasilakos in 3 hours, 18 minutes. Louis participated in the second qualifying race, two weeks later. Papadiamantopoulos, who knew Louis's running talents, had convinced him to participate, and Louis crossed the line at fifth place, behind winner Dimitrios Deligiannis.
On April 10 (or March 29 by the Julian Calendar, then in use in Greece), the Olympic Marathon was scheduled. The Greek public had been very enthusiastic about the Games, but was 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 desperately hoped the Marathon would be won by one of their countrymen.
The marathon race
In Marathon, Colonel Papadiamantopoulos gave the starting signal for the small field of runners, consisting of thirteen Greeks and four foreigners. The early leader of the race, which led over dusty dirtroads along which throngs of Greeks had gathered to watch, was the Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux, who had earlier placed third in the final of the 1500 metres. In the town of Pikermi, Louis made a stop at a local inn to drink a glass of wine. After asking for the advantage of the other runners, he confidently declared he would overtake them all before the end.
After 32 km, Lermusiaux was exhausted, and had to abandon the race after a collapse. The lead was taken over by Teddy Flack, an Australian runner who had already been victorious in the Olympic 800 and 1500 m. Louis slowly closed in on Flack. The Australian, not used to running long distances, collapsed a few kilometers onwards, giving Louis the lead.
Meanwhile, in the stadium, the atmosphere was tense, especially after a cyclist brought the news that the Australian runner 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 thousands of 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, fuelled along the way by wine, milk, beer, an Easter egg, and some orange juice. Louis's victory set off wild celebrations, as described in the official report of the Games:
"Here the Olympic 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, and even foreigners were carried away by the general enthusiasm."
Reportedly the King offered Louis any gift he would care to ask of him, and all Louis could think of was a donkey-drawn carriage to help him in his water-carrying business.
Adding to the celebrations, two more Greek runners entered the stadium to finish in second and third place. Third place finisher Spiridon Belokas was later found to have covered part of the course by carriage, and was disqualified, and his place was taken by the Hungarian Gyula Kellner.
After his victory, Louis received gifts from many countrymen, ranging from jewelry to a life-long free shave at the barber shop. It is unknown if Louis took all these gifts, although he did take back home the carriage he had asked of the King. He retreated to his hometown, never again competing in running. He lived a quiet life, working as a farmer, and later as a local police officer.
After the Olympics
In 1926, Louis was arrested on charges of falsifying military documents and was imprisoned. After spending more than a year in jail, he was found not guilty, and was acquitted. The affair predictably caused a press uproar.
His last public appearance came in 1936, when he was invited as 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 an, obviously inopportune given the circumstances, symbol of peace.
A few weeks before the German invasion of Greece, Louis passed away in his native town of Marousi. 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 (Spiros Louis Avenue).
Greek Athletes 1896, Spiros Louis with a Greek outfit
Official Report of the 1896 Olympics (10 MB, PDF)
Olympic medalists in athletics (men) | Olympic Champions in Men's Marathon
Spiridon Louis | Michel Théato | Thomas J. Hicks | William Sherring | Johnny Hayes | Kenneth McArthur | Hannes Kolehmainen | Albin Stenroos | Boughera El Ouafi | Juan Carlos Zabala | Sohn Kee-chung | Delfo Cabrera | Emil Zátopek | Alain Mimoun | Abebe Bikila (twice) | Mamo Wolde | Frank Shorter | Waldemar Cierpinski (twice) | Carlos Lopes | Gelindo Bordin | Hwang Young-Cho | Josia Thugwane | Gezahegne Abera | Stefano Baldini
Medieval Greece / Byzantine Empire
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