Shizo Kanakuri also has the distinction of being the slowest Olympic runner in the history of sport when he competed in his first Olympics.
Despite setting what may have been a world record time of 2:32:45 for a marathon trial for the Stockholm Olympics, Kanakuri arrived in Sweden in terrible shape. It took 18 days for Kanakuri and his lone teammate, sprinter, Yahiko Mishima, to get to Sweden by ship and then by Trans-Siberian Railway in time for the running competitions in July. And it was unexpectedly hot in Stockholm, with temperatures hitting 25 degrees Centigrade (77 degrees Fahrenheit), not ideal for long-distance runners.
Weakened by the travel, the lack of conditioning, the challenging local diet, and the heat, Kanakuri collapsed midway through the race, somewhere around the 27 kilometer mark. Members of a nearby farming family picked up the fallen runner and brought him to their home and cared for him until he was able to move on his own.
Despite the fact that half of the 68 starters also failed to complete the 42-kilometer race, Kanakuri was embarrassed by his failure to complete the marathon, and left the grounds without informing race officials. He then quietly returned to Japan.
But as far as Swedish officials were concerned, Kanakuri had simply vanished.
Fifty years later, in 1967, Kanakuri was “found” in Japan by producers from a Swedish television station, and to their credit, they made Kanakuri an offer he could not refuse – come back to Stockholm and complete the race.
It was just prior to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and local businessmen were brainstorming for ways to raise funds to send Swedish athletes to Mexico. According to this link, they came up with this idea – “why not have Kanakuri ‘finish’ the marathon in front of the world’s media as a way to score some free publicity and attract sponsors to their cause?”
As The Japan Times reported, Kanakuri was very happy to start what he had always intended to finish, even if it took over half a century. At the age of 76, in front of the cameras, decked out in suit and tie, Kanakuri ran about 100 meters before breaking the tape and completing the world’s longest marathon.
Judging by press reports of the proceedings, the elderly gent was only too happy to oblige, running jovially around the last corner before charging through a special ribbon. His time was promptly read out — 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds — and, according to (historian) Sayama, the elderly racer then responded: “It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”
“I knew if I stopped or sat down, that would be the end of it. I was just determined to make it to that finish line.”
And so Gabriela Andersen of Switzerland staggered into the Olympic stadium. The 30° C (86° F) heat and humidity of August in Los Angeles was overpowering, and far from ideal for a marathon. On top of that, Andersen had somehow missed the water station and did not replenish herself in the last phase of the marathon.
Greatly dehydrated, Andersen was listing awkwardly to her left, staggering at times across the lanes. It was a horrible sight for spectators in the stands and for spectators globally on TV, as they prayed the marathon would not collapse, and cheered her on to complete the first ever women’s marathon at the Olympics.
Her husband, Dick Andersen, watching in anguish from the stands, as officials in white walked alongside Andersen, asking her about her condition. In this video from The Olympic Channel, Andersen explains that one of them was a doctor who was actually encouraging. The doctor told her that he saw her sweating, and that she knew where she was going, and that both were good signs. But this was the Olympics, and this was the first marathon for women at the Olympics, so Andersen told herself,
‘Try to keep running. Try to stay upright.’ My muscles just did not respond. It just deteriorated over the last 400 meters. At this point, I’m in the Olympics. I want to finish this race because this is my one and only chance. I was 39. I knew in another four years there was a very slim chance to qualify again.
And as she made her way around the stadium track, the cheers grew louder and louder. “I clearly remember the cheering and the noise. It was just incredible. It was so loud. I didn’t expect something like that. That probably kept me going too.”
At long last, in a respectable time of 2 hours, 24 minutes and 52 seconds, Andersen finally reached the line, falling into the waiting arms of three officials, two of whom carried her off the track. Fortunately, two hours later, Andersen was fine.
Two months later, Andersen and her husband made a trip to Japan. Of course, the Japanese had witnessed Andersen’s finish to the marathon, and one person in particular, had to tell her how he felt. That was Japanese sports living legend, Shigeo Nagashima, arguably Japan’s most famous baseball player. When Nagashima met Andersen, he told her “I was moved by your singular drive to your goal. You were the perfect expression to me of the wonder and challenge of sports.”
After hearing those words, Andersen realized more than ever before that it’s not always about the result, that It’s often about not giving up.
Today, at the age of 70, Andersen lives in Idaho in America and is training hard on skis, looking forward to competition. As she said in this Japanese article, “In life, there are many setbacks. I always tell myself, ‘don’t give up, head straight for your goal.”
When József Sütő lined up for the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Hungarian didn’t know any of the other 67 competitors in the race, except for the then-world record holder, American Buddy Edelen, and the reigning Olympic champion from Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila.
When Sütő hit the halfway point in the marathon, Bikila was indeed firmly in the lead. Slightly behind him was Jim Hogan of Ireland. Ron Clarke of Australia was third, but pressing hard on Clarke were Sütő, Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan, and Demissie Wolde of Ethiopia.
“Mr. Tsuburaya was in this group, but I did not know at the time who he was,” Sütő explained in an interview with me. “I saw of course that he is Japanese but I did not know more.”
And yet, it was that race that established a life-long tie between those two runners, who never met except in that single competition on October 21, 1964. Fifty years later, Sütő would return to Japan and pay respects to the Japanese marathoner who won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and then subsequently and sadly took his own life four years later.
At this own expense, Sütő flew out to Japan to attend the 32nd Tsuburaya Memorial Meet, an annual series of running events held in the city of Sukagawa, Fukushima, the hometown of Kokichi Tsuburaya. This was October, 2014, which meant that he would be running in the memorial only two days before the 50th anniversary of the marathon of the Tokyo Olympics.
As explained in this article, Sütő ran in the 5k race, and at the age of 78, ran it in a respectable 27 minutes and 8 seconds. More importantly, he ran it in the race with teenage boys, aged 13 to 15. Sütő understands symbolism, the importance of being a role model, which is why he ran with the boys. When Sütő was growing up in Hungary, his hero was Sándor Iharos, one of the best distance runners in the world in the mid-1950s, a world record holder in the 1500-, 2,000- and 5,000-meter distances.
But Sütő also understands how he represents history, and his linkage to Japan and the 1964 Olympics, one of the defining moments of its history in the 20th century, as well as to the marathon itself. He had arrived in Tokyo on October 18th and was immediately whisked north to Sukagawa. He ran the race on October 19th. On October 20th, he attended a tour of the museum dedicated to the memory of Kokichi Tsuburaya, and then returned to Tokyo for a meeting with representatives of Japan’s National Olympic Committee on October 21st.
The meeting began at 3pm, and exactly 17 minutes into the meeting, Sütő interrupted the conversation by saying “Gentlemen, 50 years ago on this date and at this moment I was taking the turn into the Olympic stadium….and I’ll cross the finish line in a moment!”
I’ve only had the opportunity to exchange emails through an intermediary/translator named Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia, who kindly offered to assist me in communicating with Sütő . Through Rajzó-Kontor’s help, as well as the brilliant articles she wrote on Sütő’s visit to Japan in 2014, I can see that Sütő appreciates the enormity of Japan’s moment in 1964, and as he learned after leaving the Tokyo Olympics, the physical and mental trials Tsuburaya endured after the Tokyo Games. Sütő never met Tsuburaya, but he knows him, and likely wishes he could embrace him.
After completing his race at the Tsuburaya Memorial Meet that beautiful October day, he revealed his thoughts to reporters, as explained by Rajzó-Kontor:
Sütő told the local television viewers the same thing he had said in the cemetery the day before; that he had been thinking of Tsuburaya and thanking him as he ran. Sütő said he believed he would have run the distance “hand in hand” with Tsuburaya, were he still alive.
NOTE: Many, many thanks to Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia for the time she took to translate my questions from English to Hungarian, personally meet with József Sütő, and then translate his responses from Hungarian back to English.
Imagine it’s Sunday, August 9, 2020, the final day of the Tokyo Olympics. The marathon has started, tens of thousands of people are lining the route, and the morning sun is radiating a furnace room of heat.
On August 9 this year (2017), the temperature hit a high of 37 degrees Celsius, or 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot man! And potentially dangerous for runners, as well as spectators. According to Makoto Yokohari, a professor of city planning at the University of Tokyo, in August the temperature at the location of the national stadium in Tokyo gets to 30 degrees at 7:30 am, and rises to the mid 30s in Asakusa, the mid-way point of the 2020 marathon. Yokohara adds in this article that much of the route, especially around the Imperial Palace, is not under shade.
Runner’s WorldFor runners, the fastest times often come in cool weather, in a range of 4.5 °C (40 °F) to about 13 °C (55°F), according to this analysis from Runner’s World. But when you run a marathon in hot weather, your body will rebel. According to this article from Scientific America, marathoners need blood to go in two directions at the same time – to your muscles to deliver oxygen and keep your muscles pumping, and to your skin so that your body can cool down. When it’s really hot, unfortunately, the blood that goes to the muscles that are getting a work out, gets even hotter, and the blood that gets to the surface doesn’t cool down. You sweat more, you dehydrate, and your body reacts with heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or even heatstroke.
The mother of all heat related illnesses. Your body temperature rises above 105 degrees F and it becomes a life-threatening situation. Most often, heatstroke results from untreated heat exhaustion, although it’s very possible for heatstroke to come about with no signs of heat exhaustion. Heatstroke is characterized by extreme fatigue and weakness, confusion and odd behavior, disorientation and finally unconsciousness. Your body’s regulatory system completely shuts down at this point, sweating ceases, and your skin becomes hot and dry. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Convulsions and seizures can occur as your brain begins to shut down; coma and death are possible in the worst situations. GET OUT OF THE HEAT IMMEDIATELY! Seek medical attention, get in the shade, drink water, etc anything to get cooled down! You do NOT want to get to this point.
For us pedestrians, succumbing to the heat is commonplace in August, according to Akio Hoshi, a professor of health science at Toin University of Yokohama. “The number of people transported by ambulance due to heatstroke or heat exhaustion has peaked in early August in recent years. So the Tokyo Olympics fall in the period with the highest risk,” Hoshi said.
The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October, and the weather was primarily wet and cold….preferable conditions to the marathoners of 2020.
But as related in this post, Tsuburaya was a man of commitment, and he promised he would work hard to ensure he was ready to compete and do better at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Not only did Tsuburaya feel that added weight to make up for the “loss” of silver, so too did his seniors at Tsuburaya’s place of employment, Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces.
Tsuburaya did indeed train hard. And yet, somehow, he also found time for courtship, as explained in Ichiro Aoyama’s book, The Lone Runner – The Kokichi Tsuburaya Story. He had a met a girl named Eiko before the Tokyo Olympics, and he wanted to marry her after the Tokyo Games. His coach at the Self Defense Forces athletics school, Hiro Hatano, was supportive of the proposed marriage. Tsuburaya’s parents too approved of their son’s plans to marry Eiko.
One would assume that further approval would be unnecessary, but in 1966, coach Hatano’s boss expressed his dissatisfaction with the union. Perhaps Hatano’s boss thought that Tsuburaya needed to keep his focus 100% on his training – I’m not clear yet on the specifics. But in a country where hierarchy determines status and power, and in the context of a military culture where the norms of hierarchy are amplified even more, Hatano’s boss had the power to overrule a personal decision of someone in his organization.
Perhaps, in an exercise of power that feels cruel, Hatano’s boss brought Hatano, Eiko and Eiko’s mother together to inform them that the marriage to Tsuburaya would have to wait until after the Games in Mexico City so that Tsuburaya could focus solely on his training. Tsuburaya was not present in that meeting.
Eiko was devoted to Tsuburaya and wanted to wait until they could get married. But Eiko’s mother was no longer supportive, worried that marriage to a famous man like the marathon bronze medalist who had the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulder would only lay unknown burdens on the shoulders of the wife. Perhaps more of a concern, Eiko’s mother was not confident that a marriage to Tsuburaya was a sure thing in two years, and was worried that Eiko, at the age of 22, could lose other opportunities to marry well in that period.
In the end, the proposed marriage of Kokichi and Eiko was broken off. Tsuburaya’s coach and manager, Hatano, was left with the unfortunate task of informing Tsuburaya. Hatano protested these decisions to his own boss to the point where he ended up being demoted and removed as Tsuburaya’s coach. Tsuburaya thus had to train on his own, likely feeling quite alone. Very quickly, injuries began to plague Tsuburaya – first the return of the intense pain of the slipped disc, and then an injury to an achilles tendon, which required surgery in 1967.
At the end of 1967, Tsuburaya returned to his hometown of Sukagawa, Fukushima for the long holiday break that bridges the old year with the new. Tsuburaya’s father was pained with news that he wasn’t sure he should share with his son. But he thought it best to tell his son before he found out on his own – that his former fiancé, Eiko, had gotten married. Kokichi replied “Oh, Eiko-san is married. That’s good for her.” The son pretended that he was OK with the news, but his father could tell that his son was shocked and saddened.
Tsuburaya returned to his Self Defense Forces base after his time with family during the New Year’s break. And on January 8th, 1968, he slit his wrist and died in his dorm room.
Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.
These are values that resonate with the Japanese. You see it in the office worker who stays late to get things done, night after night. You see it in the high school baseball player who dives left and right after dozens if not hundreds of ground balls in the rain. You see it in the artist who tirelessly works the pottery wheel until she gets the exact curvature in the clay she sees in her head.
Kokichi Tsuburaya exemplified those values. And when he drove toward the finish line of a grueling 42-kilometer marathon race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, on the verge of grabbing a silver medal in track and field, where Japan had found no success, 70,000 Japanese shouted and screamed their encouragement, attempting to will Tsuburaya on to a strong finish. And yet the drama laid out before the spectators had the sickly feeling of inevitability. Just as Tsuburaya emerged from the shadows of the tunnel entrance, a few meters behind so too did Basil Heatley, a Brit hot on the Japanese’s heels.
When Heatley accelerated past a depleted Tsuburaya like a biker passing a pedestrian, the growing balloon of hopes an entire nation held for Tsuburaya seemed to deflate in those seconds it took Heatley to get to the finish line. It must have been a tremendous disappointment.
But then again, that’s OK. To the Japanese, Tsuburaya was not a loser. He was one of them, a man who tried so very hard, who did his very best, who never gave up. As he said in interviews after the marathon, “I will practice hard towards Mexico City.”
Of course, Tsuburaya was a product of his national cultural traits. But more impactfully, he was his father’s son, as described in Ichiro Aoyama’s book, The Lone Runner – The Kokichi Tsuburaya Story.
The seven children in the Tsuburaya household had to work hard, cleaning the house, preparing the bath, cooking, planting the rice, raising the livestock when they hit the age of 10. These were not easy tasks, and the head of the household, Koshichi Tsuburaya, believed that his children needed to be disciplined to ensure they did their chores. He ordered his children around military style, shouting directions like “Attention!” “Right face!” “Go Forward!” He made them wear shorts in the winter. He made his children repeat chores if they weren’t done properly, and of course he would hit them to make sure they knew they had done something improperly. Training included bayonet skills, just in case.
As a child Kokichi liked to run, and when his dog ran, little Kokichi liked to try to keep up with the dog. But one day, when he was 5, Kokichi felt a sharp pain in his legs and his back. The father (named Koshichi) then noticed that their boy’s left leg was shorter than his right. Knowing how little their little Kokichi would complain about anything, the parents took him to the hospital, where they learned that their boy also had tuberculosis arthritis, which causes pain in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees and ankles. So from an early age, Kokichi felt pain whenever he ran.
And yet, Kokichi loved to run. He looked up to his older brother, Kikuzo, who ran competitively. Kokichi often joined his older brother, and the elder brother saw the kid brother keep up, despite being 7 years younger. The brothers would often go for runs in the evenings. But their father didn’t approve of running for the sake of running. “You can’t live off of running,” he would say as a warning to his sons.
One time the brothers came home a little later than usual, and the entire family was seated at the dinner table quietly, waiting to start eating until the two boys sat down. The father kept quiet until the boys returned late again from running, and again told his boys angrily, “You can’t live off of running.” In order to avoid the glare of their father, the boys would sneak out for a run while their father was taking a bath.
Finally, one night, Koshichi the father confronted Kokichi the son and asked him, “If you run, will you stick to it?” The son said yes, to which Koshichi said, in the approving way of gruff dads, “Once you decide to do this, don’t quit halfway through.”
Kokichi never quit. In fact, he took his commitment to running very seriously. In high school, he trained very hard for a national 5,000 meter competition. He did not win, and without anyone’s urging, shaved his head to account publicly for his loss.
When Kokichi graduated from high school, he did something that made his father proud – he joined the Ground Self-Defense Force and became a soldier like his father had been. Japan has a long tradition of long-distance relay races, and Kokichi was slated to join the team representing the Self-Defense Forces in a national long-distance race. At the time of the race, Kokichi was in the hospital with a high fever. On top of that, Kokichi kept the fact that a slipped disk in his back was also causing him tremendous pain. Despite all that, Kokichi Tsuburaya insisted on running the longest leg of the race.
It was this commitment, this perseverance that eventually endeared Tsuburaya to the public. And through it all, even his father, who thought nothing would ever come of his running, was quietly very proud of his son. His father would often send Kokichi letters of encouragement, saying how worried he was for his son. And when Kokichi returned home from his bronze-medal finish at the Tokyo Olympics, he was surprised to find that his parents kept all sorts of newsclippings, medals and trophies of his accomplishments , or could not sleep on the eve of the Olympics, and worried deeply about his health.
They were deeply proud of their little Kokichi. And likely, so was an entire nation.
Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.
Abebe Bikila strolled into the National Stadium like he owned it. And he did. The lithe Ethiopian, a member of the Imperial Bodyguard of his nation, was about to meet expectations at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – to become the first person to win marathons in two consecutive Olympics.
The first time Bikila did so, he was an unknown, and made headlines by running barefoot on the roads of Rome in 1960 to win marathon gold. When he crossed the finish line in Tokyo, amazingly over 4 minutes earlier than the second place finisher, the audience marveled at how fresh Bikila was – so fresh that he did calisthenics and jogged in place as if he were readying for the start of a marathon.
In other words, the actual competition in the marathon was for second. And in the race for second, Japan was ready to explode in celebration.
As explained in this detailed article, at the 10K mark of the 42K race, Clarke was setting a pretty fast pace at 30:14, with Jim Hogan of Ireland and Bikila following. Around the 20k mark, Bikila took the lead and never looked back. The race for 2nd was on, with Clarke and Hogan about 5 seconds behind Bikila, and a second pack including Wolde, Tsuburaya, Jozsef Suto of Hungary and Antonio Ambu of Italy.
With about 7 kilometers to go, Bikila, Hogan, Tsuburaya and Suto were in the lead, with Heatley rising to fifth. Amazingly, Hogan dropped out of the marathon despite being in position for a silver medal, leaving the Japanese from the self defense forces, Tsuburaya in second. Heatley and Kilby were coming on, passing Suto with only 2 kilometers to go.
Heatley was advancing and could envision a bronze-medal finish, but didn’t think he could pass Tsuburaya. “I didn’t expect to catch him,” Heatley recalls, “but he was a target.”
Bikila entered the National Stadium triumphantly, winning with an ease that both shocked and surprised the crowd. But the crowd went wild a few minutes later when Tsuburaya entered the stadium. At their home Olympics, Japan had medaled in wrestling, judo, boxing, weightlifting, gymnastics and swimming among others, but not in track and field. Tsuburaya was about to change that, in front of the biggest crowd possible.
And yet, soon after Tusburaya entered the stadium, so too did Heatley, only about 10 meters behind. Just before the final curve of the stadium’s cinder track, Heatley turned on the jets and sprinted by Tsuburaya. For a 2nd place battle that took over 2 hours and 16 minutes, Tsuburaya lost his chance for silver by four seconds.
Writer, Robert Whiting, was watching this match on the television, confident that Tsuburaya would make Japan proud with a silver medal only to see that expectation burst before the eyes of an entire nation, as he explained in this article.
The cheering for Tsuburaya was building to a crescendo when suddenly Great Britain’s Basil Heatley came into view and proceeded to put on one of Olympic track and field’s great all-time spurts. He steadily closed the gap in the last 100 meters, passing Tsuburaya shortly before the wire, turning the wild cheering in the coffee shop, and in the stadium, and no doubt in the rest of Japan, into one huge collective groan.
Bob Schul, who three days earlier, became the first American to win gold in the 5,000 meter race, watched the end of the marathon with some dismay.
Abebe entered the stadium to great applause. He finished and went into the infield and started doing exercises. Finally the second guy, Tsuburaya came, and the crowd roared. But so did Heathley of England. Sharon asked if Tsuburaya could hold on to 2nd place. I said I didn’t think so. Heatley caught him about 150 meters before the finish. And the crowd became very quiet. The Japanese guy was going to get third. And when he did finish, the stadium did erupt. And that was the only medal they won in track and field.
When Kokichi Tsuburaya was a boy in elementary school, he competed in an event common throughout Japan – a sports day, when children compete against each other in a variety of activities, like foot races. After one such race, Koshichi Tsuburaya, the young runner’s father, chewed him out for looking behind him during the race. “Why are you looking back during the race. Looking back is a bad thing. If you believe in yourself, you don’t need to do so.”
Many years later, with over 70,000 people screaming in the showcase event of the Olympics, people were yelling, “Tsuburaya, a runner is behind you! Look back! Look back! He’s close!” Was Tsuburaya recalling that childhood scolding from his father? Would it have made a difference if he did?
While Tsuburaya’s very public loss of the silver medal must have been the source of pain, not only for Tsuburaya, but also of the nation. But in the end, there were no hard feelings. After all, Tsuburaya won Japan’s only medal in Athletics, a bronze in the marathon, an achievement beyond the nation’s initial expectations. Writer Hitomi Yamaguchi wrote of this pain and pride in a 1964 article.
Tsuburaya tried so very hard. And his efforts resulted in the raising of the Japanese flag in the National Stadium. My chest hurt. I applauded so much I didn’t take any notes. Since the start of the Olympic Games, our national flag had not risen once in the National Stadium. At this last event, we were about to have a record of no medals in track and field. Kon Ishikawa’s film cameras were rolling, and newspaper reporters were watching. People were waiting and hoping. So when Tsubaraya crossed the finish line, we felt so fortunate! When I saw the Japanese flag raised freely into the air, it felt fantastic. Tsuburaya, thank you.
You can watch the dramatic second-place finish to the Tokyo Olympics marathon at the 5:38 mark of this video:
Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Marija Linartaite, for finding and translating the last quote.
He wasn’t high born. He was a farmer from Origgio, Italy. And he could run, and run, and run – Forrest Gump-style. In the 1890’s, Carlo Airoldi was one of the best long-distance runners in Europe. In 1895, the year before the inaugural Olympics in Athens, Airoldi won the Milano-Barcelona footrace, a 12-leg competition of 1,050 kilometers!
So when Airoldi heard about the Athens Olympics, he likely thought a 42-kilometer marathon would not be a problem at all. Unfortunately, there was another problem. He was not a man of means like the majority of athletes attending the Athens Olympics. He could not afford to take trains or ships from Italy to Greece.
So he decided to walk. Two thousand kilometers. So that he could run 42.
He convinced an Italian magazine, La Bicicletta, to sponsor his expenses in exchange for his story. He figured if he walked and jogged some 70 kilometers a day, he could make it to Athens in a month. So, according to this article in Italian, he departed Milan on February 28, 1896, taking his first steps in the cold and windy winter weather. The book, The Olympics: A Very Peculiar History, explains that after making it 700 kilometers to Ragusa, Yugosloavia, Airoldi bought a ticket for a boat to Pattras in Western Greece, before walking another 200 kilometers to Athens.
It took Airoldi a little over a month, but he made it!
Airoldi arrived in the Greek capital in early April, just in time for the start of the Olympic Games. Unfortunately for him, these weren’t the Games of the ancient Greeks. These were the Games of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed in the purity of amateur athletics, that only those who were not tainted by victory prizes were allowed to compete.
When asked by members of the organizing committee whether he have ever received money in a competition, Airoldi replied sincerely that he indeed had, the previous year, after winning the Milan-Barcelona race a year before. Perhaps, as the Italian article explains, there was also concern that this renown distance runner from Italy was a threat to the favored Greeks in the marathon. Whatever the reason, a shocked Airoldi was declined eligibility to run in the marathon.
“If only they could walk a mile in my shoes…,” he may have thought.
Albin Lermusiaux of France, jumped out to the lead, but eventually relented to the Greek heat, and quit the footrace at the 32 kilometer mark, carried the rest of the way by horse-drawn cart. Then the Australian, Edwin Flack, jumped to the lead, only to fall at the 37 kilometer mark.
At these first modern Olympic Games in Athens, on April 10, 1896, 80,000 people sat in the Panathenaic Stadium waiting, listening to updates brought in by messengers on bicycles or horses. This was the scene of the very first marathon, an event created for the first Olympic Games. A colleague of Pierre de Coubertin, Michel Bréal, transformed a legendary story of a man named Pheidippides into an Olympic event. In 492 BC, Pheidippides ran from a place called Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 42 kilometers, to deliver new of a Greek victory over Persia, in what is called the Battle of Marathon.
So when the spectators in Panathenaic Stadium saw who was first to enter the stadium, an explosive cheer split the sky. A Greek named Spyridon Louis was to win the final event of the first modern Olympic Games in the spiritual home of the Olympics. Here is how David Goldblatt, author of the book, The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, described the significance of that moment:
It proved to be the most important event of the games, generating the kind of modern mythological hero and collective stadium spectacle that raised the 1896 Olympics above the level of a country-house games weekend or a mere historical recreation…. The man who entered the stadium first was the Greek, Spyridon Louis. The crowd went wild. The king and the crown prince descended to the track to run alongside him and, when the had finished the race, members of the royal entourage and the organizing committee embraced and kissed him.
Coubertin was also impressed, according to Goldblatt. “Egad! The excitement and the enthusiasm were simply indescribably. One of the most extraordinary sights that I can remember. Its imprint stays with me.”
Louis was not a man of wealth. He made his wages by transporting mineral water his father mined to buyers in Athens. After his victory, Louis was showered with gifts, but continued to live a simple life of a farmer and later as a police officer.
Four years prior to his death in 1940, forty years after his momentous victory in the marathon, he could still remember that moment of glory with happiness.
That hour was something unimaginable and it still appears to me in my memory like a dream … Twigs and flowers were raining down on me. Everybody was calling out my name and throwing their hats in the air …
Alain Mimoun had crossed the finish line of the marathon in Melbourne, and had won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics. The Algerian-born Frenchman watched the other finishers cross the line – the silver medalist from Yugoslavia, and the bronze medalist from Finland. A Korean finished, followed by a Japanese. And finally, the Czech arrived. And Mimoun rushed to his friend, Emil Zátopek. Here is how Richard Askwith, author of a wonderful biography on Zátopek, described this beautiful interaction:
“Emil, congratulate me,” he said. “I am an Olympic champion.” After all those years as Emil’s shadow, he was now the hero in his own right. “Emil turned and looked at me,” Mimoun recalled in later life, “as if he were waking from a dream.” He got to his feet, took two steps backward, “snapped to attention”, took off his cap and saluted him. Then he embraced him. “For me,” said Mimoun, “that was better than a medal.”
Zátopek was a truly great athlete. But for those who knew him, he was an even greater man. We note when we meet someone so open and sincere, so kind and generous. In addition to being considered, arguably, the greatest track athlete of the 20th century, people the world over who met the great Zátopek often leave him thinking he represents the very best of humanity. There are many stories of him being so giving of his possessions and his time. He’s provided training tips to competing athletes and coaches. He’s invited strangers into his home. He’s fought and cajoled authority in order to help or even save his friends.
This was an athlete who was not just fast but heroically tough. A hard man, but also a man of infectious warmth and humour. A man who never gave up, never complained, and never forgot that, in words that will always be associated with his name: “Great is the victory, but greater still is the friendship.” His fellow Olympians worshipped him. The Englishman Gordon Pirie praised his “magnificent character”; the Frenchman Alain Mimoun called him “a saint”; Fred Wild, the American, called him “perhaps the most humble, friendly and popular athlete in modern times”; Ron Clarke, the Australian, said: “There is not, and never was, a greater man than Emil Zátopek.” (Askwith)
Ron Clarke, who set 17 world records in distance running, was as taken with Zátopek as Mimoun was. But Clarke, for whatever reason, was the recipient of a breathtakingly kind gift, a story that has become legend.
It was 1966 and Clarke was in his prime. There was a track meet to be held in Prague, and the national broadcaster, CSTV, asked Zátopek if he would personally invite Clarke to participate in the meet. Of course, Zátopek did so, warmly asking the Australian track star to attend. Clarke was humbled to be asked by Zátopek, cancelling other events so he could go.
As soon as Clarke arrived in Prague, the two great distant runners were nearly inseparable. Zátopek met Clarke on the tarmac, got him waved through immigration and customs, and basically chauffeured Clarke for several days. He drove him to the track meet from Clarke’s hotel and cheered him on. He took him shopping. He even took him to one of his favorite training spots in the woods of Stará Boleslav where they worked out together.
“It was a beautiful forest, and we did a huge workout, talking and chatting, and he showed me all the training things he did,” said Clarke according to Askwith. “Emil was eight years into his retirement, but Clarke later wrote that it had been one of the most demanding sessions he had done for a long time.”
Eventually it was time for Clarke to return to Australia. Of course, Zátopek drove him to the airport, whisked him through the red tape, and said goodbye. He handed Clarke a gift, a small object wrapped in plain brown paper, held together with a piece of string. According to Askwith, who interviewed Clarke about his time in Prague, Clarke was not sure what the object was for or why he should receive something like this, so he did not look at it until he arrived in London. Perhaps it was something that Zátopek wanted to have surreptitiously brought out of the country, so Clarke wanted to make sure he was out of Czech air space.
And according to Askwith, based on review of several sources, Clarke finally looked at the gift. In fact early references to this story placed him inside the private confines of a lavatory stall.
In an account given much nearer the event, he [Clarke] retreated to the toilet. Either way, he was sitting alone and unobserved as he unwrapped a small box. Inside was an Olympic gold medal – one of the three that Emil had won in Helsinki. Emil had signed inside of the lid, adding (in the limited space available): “to Ron Clarke, Prag. 19-7-1966”. For a moment, realizing what it was, he felt “overwhelming excitement”. And then (reverting here to the earlier account) he understood what it meant – and: “I sat on the lavatory seat and wept.”
What prompted Zátopek to gift a symbol of one of the greatest athletic accomplishments in human history to a person he knew only for a few days?
It may be a conundrum for us normal folk – people who could not imagine surrendering such an artifact of personal accomplishment, something that would be treasured not only by the individual, but by people around that person, a reflection of greatness that come to the very few. Most would hold on to it as a family keepsake; some would guard it and the reputation it enhances like a jealous person.
For people like Zátopek, people were the prize. “Great is the victory,” he said, “but greater is the friendship.”