marathon to athens map
Marathon to Athens

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.”

Spyridon Louis

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 …

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Panagiotis Soutsos
Panagiotis Soutsos

He imagined the ghost of Plato, wandering the deplorable state of his home country of Greece, wondering where the proud, heroic Greece that he knew had gone?

Where are all your theaters and marble statues?

Where are your Olympic Games?

Panagiotis Soutsos was a journalist and editor for a newspaper in Greece, and in the afterglow of Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, wrote the poem Dialogue of the Dead, in which the ghost of Plato emerges. Soutsos was a patriot, who saw the revival of the Olympic Games as a way to restore national pride. A Greek industrialist named Evangelos Zappas, who fought in the Greek war for independence, became wealthy enough to indulge Soutsos’ dream.

As David Goldblatt said in his book The Games; A Global History of the Olympics, Zappas wrote a letter to King Otto proposing to renovate the Panathenaic Stadium, a structure that had fallen into ruin, with his own funds, and re-launch the Olympic Games there.

Evangelos Zappas
Evangelos Zappas

Zappas would end up working with foreign minister Alexander Rangavis, who was less interested in a sports event, and more in a one-month exposition, one that focused on Greek agriculture, industry and education. Rangavis did not respond to Zappas’ idea, so Soutsos stepped up with an article publicizing Zappas’ Olympic dream, which got the ball rolling again. In the end, King Otto agreed to the organization of athletic competitions every four years to run parallel to expo. Though the Panathenaic Stadium was not ready, the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece, commenced on November 15, 1859. Here’s how Goldblatt described it:

Held in a cobbled city square in Athens over three Sundays, there was running, horse and chariot races, discus and javelin competitions modelled on the ancient sources, as well as the climbing of a greasy pole. The games were opened by the king and queen, medals bearing the words “First Olympic Crown” were issued and prizes were plentiful. The crowds appear to have been large, and athletes came from across the Greek-speaking world to attend, but the organization was poor. Few spectators could actually see much of the events and, when the crowd pushed towards the front, the local press reported that one policeman who was supposed to keep order showed so much incompetence that his horse ran every which way and hit men and women.

Only 6 years later, Zappas passed away.