S pyridon (“Spyros”) Louis (Greek: Σπυρίδων “Σπύρος” Λούης, sometimes transliterated Loues; January 12, 1873 – March 26, 1940) was a Greek water-carrier who won the first modern-day Olympic marathon at the 1896 Summer Olympics, thereby becoming a national hero.
Louis was born in the town of Marousi, which is now a suburb to the north of Athens, into a poor farmer’s family. Louis’s father sold mineral water in Athens, at the time lacking a central water supply, and his son helped him by transporting it.
After the decision to revive the Olympic Games in 1894, preparations were made to organise the first modern Olympics in Athens. One of the races would be the marathon, an event which had never been held before. It had been suggested by Frenchman Michel Bréal, who was inspired by the legend of the messenger Phidippides, who had run from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Athenian victory in the Battle of Marathon.
The Greeks were very enthusiastic about this new event and decided to stage qualifying races for would-be Greek participants. These were organised by an army colonel, Papadiamantopoulos, who had been Louis’ commanding officer during his military service (1893–1895). The first qualifying race—the first ever marathon race—was held on March 22, and was won by Kharilaos Vasilakos in 3 hours, 18 minutes. Louis participated in the second qualifying race, two weeks later. Papadiamantopoulos, who knew Louis’ running talents, had convinced him to try out. Louis crossed the line in fifth place, behind winner Dimitrios Deligiannis.
The Olympic marathon was run on April 10 (or March 29 by the Julian Calendar then in use in Greece). The Greek public had been very enthusiastic about the Games, but was disappointed in the fact that no track and field event had yet been won by a Greek competitor. The victory in the discus throw, a classical Greek event, by the American Robert Garrett had been particularly painful. Because of its close connection with Greek history, the public desperately yearned for the marathon to be won by one of their countrymen.
The marathon race
Spiros Louis photographed by Albert Meyer, the official photographer of the Athens 1896 Olympiad
In Marathon, Colonel Papadiamantopoulos gave the starting signal for the small field, consisting of thirteen athletes from Greece and four from other nations. The early leader of the race, which led over dusty dirt roads along which throngs of Greeks had gathered to watch, was the Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux, who had earlier placed third in the final of the 1500 metres. In the town of Pikermi, Louis made a stop at a local inn to drink a glass of wine. (Louis’ grandson, Spiridon Louis, has said that this is incorrect; that his grandfather’s girlfriend gave him half an orange and shortly afterwards he “got a glass of cognac from his future father in law.”) After asking for the advantage of the other runners, he confidently declared he would overtake them all before the end.
After 32 km, Lermusiaux was exhausted, and had to abandon the race after a collapse. The lead was taken over by Edwin Flack, an Australian runner who had already been victorious in the Olympic 800 and 1500 m. Louis slowly closed in on Flack. The Australian, not used to running long distances, collapsed a few kilometers onwards, giving Louis the lead.
In the stadium, the atmosphere was tense, especially after a cyclist brought the news that the Australian was in the lead. But another messenger was sent out by the police as soon as Louis moved into the lead, and as the word spread that it was a Greek that led the race, the cry “Hellene, Hellene!” was taken up by thousands of rapturous spectators. When Louis finally arrived in a stadium erupting with joy, two Greek princes – Crown Prince Constantine and Prince George – rushed to meet him and accompanied him on his final lap for a finishing time of 2:58:50, fuelled along the way by wine, milk, beer, an Easter egg, and some orange juice. Louis’s victory set off wild celebrations, as described in the official report of the Games:
Here the Olympic Victor was received with full honour; the King rose from his seat and congratulated him most warmly on his success. Some of the King’s aides-de-camp, and several members of the Committee went so far as to kiss and embrace the victor, who finally was carried in triumph to the retiring room under the vaulted entrance. The scene witnessed then inside the Stadion cannot be easily described, and even foreigners were carried away by the general enthusiasm.
Reportedly, the king offered Louis any gift he would care to ask of him, and all Louis could think of was a donkey-drawn carriage to help him in his water-carrying business.
After his victory, Louis received gifts from many countrymen, ranging from jewelry to a life-long free shave at the barber shop. It is unknown if Louis took all these gifts, although he did take back home the carriage he had asked of the king. He retreated to his hometown, never again competing in running. He lived a quiet life, working as a farmer, and later as a local police officer.
Olympic Champion Parade, led by Spyros Louis at Panathinaikos stadium in 1896