Now one of the signature events of the Olympics, the marathon had a bizarre start at the Summer Games with distances that fluctuated, winners downing strychnine and brandy, racers being chased by wild dogs and runners disqualified for hitching rides in cars.
Although inspired by the ancient Greeks, the Olympic marathon is a thoroughly modern invention. After Athens was chosen to host the first modern Summer Games in 1896, French linguist Michel Bréal proposed that the sporting competition include a long-distance run to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Pheidippides, the messenger who dropped dead from exhaustion after sprinting 25 miles to Athens after the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. to bring news of victory over the invading Persian army.
On the afternoon of April 10, 1896, a group of 17 runners gathered near the ancient battlefield in Marathon to race the 24.8 miles to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, originally built in 330 B.C. and restored for the Summer Games. As the racers pounded the dirt roads towards Athens, messengers on bike and horseback sprinted to the stadium with updates. Despite stopping halfway to eat an egg and quaff a glass of wine, 23-year-old Greek shepherd Spyridon Louis was the first runner to enter the stadium. As the 80,000 fans packed inside realized the leader was one of their countrymen, cries of “Hellene! Hellene!” filled the air. Among the fans caught up in the jubilation were the crown prince of Greece and his brother who jumped onto the track to join Louis as he circled the stadium before crossing the finish line. “The excitement and the enthusiasm were simply indescribable. one of the most extraordinary sights that I can remember,” wrote Pierre du Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic games.
It appeared at first that the host country had swept the top three spots in the marathon, but third-place finisher Spyridon Belokas was disqualified for hitching a ride in a carriage along part of the race course. The first Olympic marathon champion received a cup donated by Bréal and an ancient Greek painted vase. Although he became a national hero in Greece, Louis returned to life as a farmer and never competed in another race again.
According to David Goldblatt, author of “The Games: A Global History of the Olympics,” that first marathon “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 of a mere historical recreation.” The ultimate race of endurance returned to the 1900 Olympics in Paris, this time lengthened to a distance of slightly over 25 miles.
The 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis, adjusted back to 24.8 miles, turned out to be a hot mess. With the thermometer soaring over 90 degrees, competitors struggled to stay on their feet and choked on dust kicked up by escorting automobiles traversing the parched, dusty roads. The heat felled more than half of the 32 runners. South African Len Tau, a Tswana tribesman who was part of the Boer War exhibit at the World’s Fair also being staged in St. Louis, encountered obstacles of a more canine variety. Wild dogs chased him nearly a mile off the course.
To the cheers of thousands of his countrymen, American Fred Lorz was the first runner to cross the finish line. Little did the crowd know, however, that Lorz had ridden 10 miles of the marathon course in an automobile after cramping up early in the race. When his car broke down, a rejuvenated Lorz ran the final 5 miles. The hoax, however, was quickly exposed, and Lorz was disqualified.
Back on the course, stomach cramps did in Cuban runner Felix Carvajal after he snacked on green apples picked from an orchard along the course. American Thomas Hicks was struggling as well. Seeing Hicks flagging, the runner’s assistants administered him an early 20th-century form of a performance enhancer—a dose of strychnine, sulfate in egg whites and a swig of brandy. Potentially lethal, but perfectly within the rules at the time. The rejuvenated Hicks managed to win the 1904 Olympic marathon before collapsing after crossing the finish line.
The 1904 Olympic marathon had been so grueling that many felt it beyond the bounds of human capability. Even the director of the 1904 Summer Games, James Sullivan, opposed the race’s return to the Olympics. “It is indefensible on any ground, but historic,” he said.
In spite of the protests, the marathon returned for the 1908 Olympics in London and for the first time was run at its present distance of 26 miles, 385 yards, perhaps due to royal prerogative. The lengthening of the race was said to have been done at the behest of the Princess of Wales who wished for her children to be able to watch the start of the race from the window of the royal nursery at Windsor Castle.
As in 1904, conditions were once again difficult for the marathoners. By the 20-mile mark, nearly half of the 55 starters had abandoned the race. According to Goldblatt, runners were given rice pudding, raisins, brandy, eau de cologne and strychnine, again, to keep them going. With two miles to go, leader Charles Heffron from South Africa downed a glass of champagne offered up by a fan. A half-mile later, he suffered a terrible hangover when alcohol-induced cramps kicked in.
Italian pastry chef Dorando Pietri took the lead from the South African but was struggling to stay on his feet as he entered the Olympic stadium for the final lap of the race. Disoriented, Pietri initially began to run the wrong way around the track before race officials guided him in the correct direction. As 80,000 fans tried to will the delirious Pietri across the finish line, “he staggered along the cinder path like a man in a dream, his gait being neither a walk nor a run, but simply a flounder,” according to one newspaper account. The Italian fell three times until race officials—fearful that Pietri could become a latter-day Pheidippides and die right in front of the onlooking Queen Alexandra—finally picked him up and carried him the last 10 yards across the finish line before removing him on a stretcher. After the United States protested that Pietri did not complete the entire course on his own two feet, American Johnny Hayes was declared the winner. Had it not been for the lengthening of the race course, PIetri would have been able to finish it on his own.
The Italian runner lost the Olympic title, but he won the sympathy of much of London. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, raised money to present Pietri with a gold cigarette case and a check for more than 300 pounds. Queen Alexandra presented him with a replica of the winner’s trophy, paid for at her own expense. Since there was no time to get the award engraved, the monarch presented it with a handwritten card.
The 1908 Olympic marathon was, according to the New York Times, “a spectacle the like of which none living had ever seen and none who saw it expect it to be repeated.” And it hasn’t. The 26.2-mile distance was eventually standardized beginning in 1924, and a women’s marathon was introduced to the Summer Games in 1984. The men’s marathon has grown to become one of the signature events of the Olympics with the medals being the last awarded.