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  The story of marathon at Olympics Games

The story of marathon at Olympics Games

Published : Aug 4, 2016, 6:55 am IST
Updated : Aug 4, 2016, 6:55 am IST

Italy’s Dorando Pietri crosses the marathon finish line at the 1908 London Olympics. He was later disqualified for getting outside help.

Italy’s Dorando Pietri crosses the marathon finish line at the 1908 London Olympics. He was later disqualified for getting outside help.

The marathon is an Olympic event that is steeped in Greek history, even though there was no long-distance race in the ancient Olympics. Marathon is a town in Greece where the Greek and the Persians fought a bitter battle around 490 BC. According to legend, a runner named Pheidippides dropped dead of exhaustion after running all the way from Marathon to Athens to convey the news of a Greek victory. Although historians haven’t corroborated the fatal run, the story endures.


Frenchman Michel Breal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin and a keen student of classical Greece, played a key role in including a marathon race of about 25 miles on the modern Olympic programme in 1896. He also gifted a silver cup for the winner. The race started at Marathon and ended at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.

Fittingly enough, Spyridon Louis, a Greek farmer and a water carrier, became the winner in 1896. The crowd went wild with joy after Louis entered the stadium first. King George and crown prince Constantine joined him towards the end. Greek people lavished Louis, who was overwhelmed by the victory in only his second mara-thon, with prizes: from lifelong free haircuts to free dinners.


That a Greek became the marathon champion at the first modern Olympics solidified the event’s place on the Games programme. de Coubertin was thrilled at the jubilation he witnessed. “It was one of the extraordinary sights I’ve seen,” he said. The winning time was 2:58.50 seconds. Greeks run a marathon on the historic course (from Marathon to Athens) in September every year. No Olympic event would be more dramatic than the marathon in the next few editions. Here is a recap of marathon’s eventful ride.

1900 Paris: The organisation was haphazard with foreigners accusing the French of taking short cuts during the race. It took more than a decade for the winner, Frenchman Michel Theato, to realise that he had won the Olympics marathon.


1904 St. Louis: Fred Lorz was getting ready to receive the gold medal when it was found out that the American had taken a car ride midway through the race. Thomas Hicks, also an American, was declared the winner and technically he should also have been disqualified because he had imbued alcohol along the way.

1908 London: Privileges enjoyed by the British royal family lengthened the marathon distance to 26 miles 385 yards (42 kilometres 195 metres) in 1908. A mile was added to the race as Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Mary, wanted it to start from Windsor Castle. Another 385 yards was added because her daughter-in-law, Princess Alexandra, was keen to ensure that the race ended in front of the Royal Box inside the White City Stadium.


The actual race was the most dramatic in Olympic history. Italy’s Dorando Pietri entered the stadium first but he headed in the wrong direction as a result of exhaustion and disorientation.

After being led into the right path, he fell five times before being helped by some officials over the line. After a protest from the second-placed Johnny Hayes of the USA, Pietri was disqualified. But the Italian, who bore some resemblance to Charlie Chaplin, became a cult hero. Queen Victoria presented him a silver cup.