Spyridon Louis - Greek peasant who “accidentally” won the Olympics


Posted on Mar 11, 2022      250


The path to the Olympic medals usually takes over one year and requires hard work by the athlete. It may seem strange now, but at the end of the 19th century Olympics, participants often found themselves in the tournament by chance, finding out about it shortly before the start. A typical example was the Greek peasant Spyridon Louis, who ran the marathon for the only time in his life and became an Olympic champion.

Spyridon Louis was born on January 12, 1873, in the suburbs of Athens, to a large peasant family and the fifth child. Barely out of elementary school, he began helping his father deliver water. There is also information that in his youth, Spiridon was a letter carrier. However, one did not interfere with the other. He could be both, as the family did not live well. He had to take any job. Spiridon Louis could not dream of a career as an athlete.

He got to the Olympics by chance, on the initiative of his commander during his military service. And it all started with the fact that in the early nineties of the XIX century French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin conceived the idea - to revive the Olympic Games, on the example of those that were held many centuries ago in ancient Greece. His initiative was supported by the holding of the first modern Olympics was scheduled for 1896. And the venue was chosen for Athens.

One day Colonel Papadiamantopoulos, in whose unit Louis served, saw a note in the newspaper that reported on the upcoming Olympics. He suggested Odat take part in the selection process. Years of hard peasant work were not in vain. The boy was very hardy.

French philologist Michel Brial suggested the Olympics should include a marathon run in memory of the Greek warrior Philipides, who in 490 BC ran from Marathon to Athens to tell his fellow countrymen the good news of a victory over the Persians.

The participants in the marathon distance were to run 40 kilometers. On April 10, 1896, 17 competitors, most of them Greeks, took the start. Among them was Spirdon Louis. In Greece, they had high hopes for this competition. The athletics tournament was ending, and the hosts had never taken first place, the clear favorites being the American athletes.

The first kilometers of the race did not make the Greeks any more optimistic. The French athlete Albin Lermuzio had already taken the third place during the 1,500 meters. But he did not have the strength to run the whole marathon, so he dropped out after 30 km. Edwin Flack of Australia, who had twice won the 800 m and 1500 m races, headed the race. But he didn’t make it to the finish line either. Flack never ran long distances again, realizing that it required special training. Spiridon Louis modestly stuck to the golden mean. He became the leader only two kilometers before the finish.

In the stadium, where 80,000 spectators had gathered in anticipation of the finish, joyous news flew across: the leader of the marathon was their compatriot! The spectators jumped up from their seats in excitement, throwing flowers onto the running track. Soon Spiridon Luis appeared in the stadium and was the first to reach the finish line. Soon the second athlete came running, who also was the Greek Vasilakos. This was literally a national holiday for the entire country!

The fans rushed to the track to congratulate the triumphators. Even the police had to intervene, so that the champion would not be strangled in their arms. Spiridon Luis, who had never taken part in sports before, was the winner. He covered the distance in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds. He was solemnly awarded the silver medal. This is not a typo - the rules of the first Olympics only awarded two athletes. The winner received a silver medal, and the runner-up a bronze medal.

But could the grateful Greeks stop there? After all, Spyridon Louis won in the very sporting discipline that the hosts had pinned their hopes on. Gifts came from all over the country. Confectioners gave him a ton of chocolate, the owner of a large restaurant gave him a season ticket for 3,652 free meals. In addition, the champion became the owner of a herd of cows and was entitled to a free haircut for life in one of the hairdressing salons.

So, everything was great: Spiridon Louis is only 23 years old and in great athletic shape. So he had a brilliant career as a long-distance runner ahead of him? Perhaps most Greeks thought so, but not the Olympic champion himself. He, to everyone’s surprise, returned home and started a farm. Now he could afford it. And he married the girl he had long loved.

He never went out on the treadmill again, leading the ordinary life of a peaceful farmer. He starred in several documentaries, and in 1936 he attended the Olympics in Berlin as a guest of honor. Big sport remained only a pleasant episode in life, and nothing more.

The Olympic champion died in his hometown of Maroussi near Athens on March 26, 1940, because of a heart attack. He was 67 years old. World War II was going on and soon Spyridon Louis’ homeland was occupied by Italy.

Although Spyridon Louis’ career was short-lived, he is remembered in Greece even many years later. The Athens Olympic Stadium and the adjacent boulevard, where Louis ran to the finish line in April 1896, bear the name of the first marathon winner. In 2015, on the seventieth anniversary of the champion’s death, a commemorative 2 euro coin was issued.

The memory of Spiridon Luis is kept alive not only in his homeland. There is also a monument to him in the faraway Australian town of Berwick. Why there? The reason is that Berwick is the homeland of Edwin Flack, with whom Luis fought for victory many years ago. The monument is a tribute to the athlete who won in a fair fight. Plus, thanks to the Greeks for ordering Crown Prince Nicholas to take him to the hospital in his carriage after Flack collapsed on the course.


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