Olympic Marathon History: A Definitive Guide To The Olympic Marathon Moments That Shook The World Of Sport
The true stories behind some of the most iconic moments in Olympic marathon history.
The men’s marathon has been an official part of the Olympic Games since the first modern Olympiad in 1896. It wasn’t until ninety-odd years later, in 1984, that the women’s marathon event was added to the Olympic programme. Because of the event’s historic origins in ancient Greece, and the fitness levels required to run it competitively, the marathon is one of the most famous running events at the Olympics.
Olympic marathon running has a fascinating history littered with memorable moments that have echoed down the decades. Inspirational athletes, iconic locations, record breaking times; the last 120 years of Olympic marathon running has seen it all. This summer, at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, long-distance runners from across the world will be hoping to add their name to a distinguished list of medal winners.
To get you up to speed with everything, before it all kicks off in August, we’ve compiled together some of the most famous moments in Olympic marathon history.
Athens 1896 – An Olympic Marathon That Starts In Marathon, Greece
Spiridon “Spyros” Louis was a Greek water-carrier from the town of Marousi, now a suburb to the north of Athens, who became a national hero for Greece when he won the inaugural Olympic Marathon event at the first modern Olympiad in 1896.
Before victory in the marathon for Louis, the enthusiastic Greek public had been desperate for one of their compatriots to win gold in the athletics. Defeat in the Olympic discus, a national sport from the times of ancient Greece, to American Robert Garrett had been particularly painful for the Greeks. The people needed a hero of Herculean proportions; enter Spiridon Louis.
The field comprised 17 athletes, 13 of whom were Greek. The route honoured the legendary messenger Philippides, who ran from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated at the Battle of Marathon. The marathon course at the 1896 Olympics was 25 miles long, rather than the 26.2 miles seen today.
Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux an early lead in the race, with British-born Australian Edwin Flack and American Arthur Blake following in second and third place. Blake dropped out just after the 14 mile mark, and Lermusiaux called it quits just short of the 20 mile mark. This left Flack in the lead, but Spiridon Louis was gaining all the time thanks to some tactical endurance running. Flack, who was not used to running such long distances, collapsed a few more miles from the stadium. This left Louis on his own, out in front.
Messages were run back and forth from the stadium via a cyclist. When Louis entered the stadium, the crowd exploded with joy at the sight of a Greek leading the race. Two Greek Princes (Crown Prince Constantine and Prince George) ran down to meet him – joining him for his final lap. The winning time for Louis was 2:58.50. His victory meant it was officially party time, in Athens. The fact that another Greek, named Kharilaos Vasilakos, came in roughly eight minutes later to secure the silver medal only added to the carnival atmosphere.
It is believed that the King of Greece offered Louis the chance to pick his reward, and make sure it was taken care of. Louis, ever the modest, asked only for a donkey-drawn carriage to help him with his water-carrying business. Speaking of carriages, one of the more amusing stories from the 1896 Olympics is that of Greek runner Spyridon Belokas. Belokas finished the marathon in third, but was later disqualified after it emerged that he’d travelled part of the course by carriage.
The heroics of Spiridon “Spyros” Louis have never been forgotten in Greece. The Olympic Stadium built for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games was, by popular demand, named after him.
London 1908 – The Disqualification of Dorando Pietri And The Most Iconic Finish In Olympic Marathon History
The disqualification of the Italian runner Dorando Pietri at the London Olympics of 1908 is one of the most infamous hard-luck stories in sporting history.
Pietri began the 1908 Olympic Marathon at a relatively gentle pace, but made a powerful surge in the second half of the race and found himself in second place by the 20 mile mark (roughly 4 minutes behind the South African runner Charles Hefferon).
Upon discovering that Hefferon was struggling, Pietri upped his pace further in a bid to reel in the South African – overtaking him at the 24 mile mark. The effort required to get ahead of Hefferson obliterated what was left of Pietri’s energy reserves, and with just two kilometres to go he began to suffer badly from dehydration and fatigue.
After entering the stadium, Pietri went the wrong way. As the umpires redirected him, exhaustion got the better of him and he collapsed for the first time. He got back to his feet, with the help of the umpires, and continued his struggle to the finish line. All this happened, it’s worth remembering, with the eyes of 75,000 Wembley spectators on him.
Pietri fell four more times before reaching the finishing line, with the umpires getting him back to his feet on each occasion. His final time for the London 1908 Olympic Marathon was 2:54.46. Remarkably, a whole 10 minutes of this time was for the last 350 metres.
American Johnny Hayes came in second, behind Pietri. Outraged at the help he’d got from the umpires, the American team immediately filed a complaint against the result. The complaint was accepted and Pietri saw himself removed from the marathon’s final standings. The Italian had made it to the stadium but his inability to finish the final lap, without help, meant he fell agonisingly short of Olympic glory.
As compensation for missing out on a medal, Queen Alexandra gifted Pietri a gilded silver cup. Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, wrote an article for the Daily Mail – praising Pietri’s “great performance” and unforgettable effort.
He might not have won the gold medal but this iconic race will forever be known for Dorando Pietri’s refusal to quit, and willingness to finish the race; no matter what.
Helsinki 1952 – Emil Zátopek’s Long-Distance Triple And Defining Moment In Olympic Marathon History
Czechoslovakian long-distance runner Emil Zátopek etched himself into the history books with a legendary performance at the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games. In the year 2013, Zátopek was named by Runner’s World Magazine as the ‘Greatest Runner Of All Time.’ Because of his sensational exploits in Olympic long-distance running events, especially those of 1952, he was nicknamed the “Czech Locomotive.”
Zátopek is the only person in Olympic history to win 5,000m gold, 10,000m gold and marathon gold at the same Games. Not only did Zátopek complete a historical triple in Helsinki, he also set Olympic records in all three of the long-distance events.
Incredibly, Zátopek only decided to compete in the Olympic marathon at the very last minute. Even more incredibly than that, it was the first marathon he’d ever run. His tactic was to stay close to British world-record holder Jim Peters, and take it from there.
After a gruelling and punishingly quick first 15 minutes, it is believed that Zátopek asked the Englishman what he thought of the race so far. Peters tried to play what, nowadays, you’d label as “mind-games” – telling Zátopek that the pace was “too slow.” Zátopek then surged ahead and left Peters, who did not finish the race, trailing in his wake.
Here’s to Emil Zátopek. The greatest runner who ever lived.
Rome 1960 – The Emergence of Ethiopian Legend Abebe Bikila And The Rise Of A New Olympic Superpower
When tracing the history of Olympic marathons, and the rise of East Africa as a long-distance running powerhouse, it would be remiss not to discuss the heroic athletic exploits of the Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila. Bikila was a double Olympic champion, winning gold at Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964 in the marathon events. What’s more, he succeeded at his first Olympics running barefoot. Barefoot?! Yes. Barefoot.
Bikila was only added to the Ethiopian Olympic team at the last moment, as a substitute for Wami Biratu (who couldn’t compete because of health reasons). Adidas, the shoe sponsors at the 1960 Olympics, had few shoes left when Bikila rocked up to get some fitted. His lack of comfort in the shoes he eventually selected saw him make the decision to run the marathon barefoot as this was how he had trained for the event.
Bikila was told before the race that one of his main rivals would be the Moroccan Rhadi Ben Abdesselam. The story goes that Bikila was wrongly informed about what number bib Ben Abdesselam would be wearing, and spent the entire race looking for the runner in the number 26 bib (Ben Abdesselam was actually wearing 185). As the race went on, Bikila continued to overtake the other runners – all the while, looking for number 26.
12 miles in, Bikila and Ben Abdesselam had separated themselves from the trailing pack. Bikila, unaware who he was running alongside, kept looking ahead to see if he could find the runner wearing number 26. The pair ran alongside each other until the final mile, at which point Bikila charged ahead to finish a whole 25 seconds ahead of the Moroccan. He was the first athlete from sub-saharan Africa to win an Olympic gold medal, and his time of 2:15:16.2 was a world record.
Tragically, in 1973, Bikila died from complications caused by a car accident four years earlier that had resulted in him being a paraplegic. He was just 41.
Those passionate about long-distance running, and the Olympic Games, will never forget Abebe Bikila’a inspirational achievements. There is a sports stadium named after Bikila in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
Los Angeles 1984 – Joan Benoit Samuelson’s Incredible Win At The First Female Marathon In Olympic History
Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first ever women’s Olympic marathon event, at the Los Angeles 1984 Games. The achievement was remarkable for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Benoit Samuelson had badly injured her knee during a training run earlier that year. The injury was so bad that it required surgery. Miraculously, she recovered from the surgery far quicker than anyone expected and was able to compete at the United States women’s marathon trials just 17 days after being laid out on the operating table.
Secondly, Benoit Samuelson was up against some of long-distance running’s most legendary female athletes. Rosa Mota of Portugal, Grete Waitz of Norway and Ingrid Kristiansen – also of Norway – all stood between Samuelson and an Olympic gold medal on home soil. Benoit Samuelson ran the race of her life, and beat them all.
Athens 2004 – Paula Radcliffe Pulls Out At The 22 Mile Mark In Heartbreaking Olympic Marathon Moment
To say Paula Radcliffe went to the Athens 2004 Olympic Games as the favourite for the women’s marathon event is one hell of an understatement. In the years building up to the Athens Games, Radcliffe had served up some of the greatest long-distant runs of all time and everything looked like it was building towards an inevitable Olympic gold in the summer of 2004.
In 2002, Radcliffe moved up from 5,000m and 10,000m to compete in marathons. She immediately reaped the benefits of this decisions when she won the London Marathon in April of that year. Her finishing time of 2:18.55 made it the second quickest women’s marathon time in history. Later that year, Radcliffe broke the world record in the Chicago marathon – with a time of 2:17.18.
At the end of 2002, Radcliffe was awarded the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. In 2003, she obliterated her own world record at the London Marathon with a finishing time of 2:15.25. It seemed, at the time, like the world of long-distance running belonged to the legs of Paula Radcliffe.
Two weeks prior to the Olympic Games in Athens, Radcliffe suffered an injury that required a course of powerful anti-inflammatory drugs. This, it turned out, had a terrible effect on her stomach and disrupted her ability to digest and absorb food. Although no British athletics fan wanted to believe it at the time, this disruption to her preparations would go on to have a catastrophic effect on Radcliffe’s chances.
Radcliffe started the Athens 2004 race brightly, taking four other runners with her. Around the 15 mile mark, Radcliffe started to struggle during a challenging uphill segment of the marathon course. At about the 21 mile mark, Radcliffe tried to bring herself back into the race but this attempted recovery came to nothing and she made the decision to quit the race with roughly three miles to go.
The iconic images of that summer’s Olympic marathon were meant to be Radcliffe standing on the podium with a gold medal round her neck. Heartbreakingly, for her and her fans, the iconic images were of her slumped by the side of the road with tears in her eyes.
There was a big slice of redemption to be had for Radcliffe, when she won gold at the 2005 Helsinki World Championships a year later. Despite a highly successful athletics career however, Olympic glory always eluded her. She is still the world record holder for women’s marathon.
Beijing 2008 – First Kenyan In History To Win An Olympic Marathon
The men’s event at the Beijing 2008 Games was significant because it was the first time a Kenyan had won gold in the Olympic marathon. Samuel Kamau Wanjiru was the man to do it, and he did it with a phenomenal O.R time of 2:06.32. He smashed the previous record of 2:09.21, set by Portugal’s Carlos Lopes in 1984, by almost three minutes.
Wanjiru, it was felt, could have gone on to cement himself as one of the greatest long-distance runners of all-time with another win at London 2012. However, it wasn’t be as the Kenyan died in mysterious circumstances in 2011. He was just 24. Wanjiru fell from a balcony at his home in Nyahururu after a domestic dispute with his wife. Police still do not know if the cause was homicide, suicide, or accidental.
The question of how good the immensely talented Wanjiru could have gone onto be will forever remain a tragically unanswered question in the history of Olympic sport.
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