First Olympic marathon

The first Olympic marathon was pretty wild: an Australian competitor collapsed and then punched a spectator, the third-place runner was disqualified for riding in a carriage, and a woman prevented from entering ran the same course the next day.

Burton Holmes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The marathon was supposed to be the prestige event of the first modern Olympics. Conceived to honour (and mimic) the legendary run of Pheidippides, the first Olympic marathon was about as dramatic. Although nobody died.

For the 1896 games, Edwin Flack was Australia’s only athlete. He had already won two gold medals by the time the marathon began: the 1500 metres three days earlier, and the 800 metres the day before. So by the time the marathon began, he was probably pretty tired. Added to that, the longest race that Flack had ever tried up until that point was less than half the length of the marathon. He was about to discover The Wall.

(Side note: Flack’s first-place medals – like those of all 1896 Olympic champions – were actually silver. The International Olympic Committee retroactively upgraded them to gold later.)

For most of the race a French runner named Albin Lermusiaux was in first place, followed by Flack and an American named Blake. Blake dropped out just over halfway through, Lermusiaux too only eight kilometres before the finish line. With only three kilometres left, Flack himself collapsed from exhaustion. A bystander tried to help him up, at which point the delirious runner apparently punched him.

Of the race’s seventeen runners, only ten made it to the end. The winner of the race was Greek national hero Spyridon Louis. Another Greek runner came in third place, but it soon came out that he had cheated. Spyridon Belokas had actually hopped into a carriage for some of the marathon, and was promptly disqualified.

The first Olympics was a purely male event. We have Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern games, to thank for that blatant sexism. At least one woman tried to enter, though… and she tried to enter the marathon. Stamata Revithi ran the same route the day after the men’s marathon, with witnesses certifying her departure and arrival times. She finished the race in five and a half hours, which would have put her ahead of Flack, Blake, Lermusiaux, and all the other male runners who didn’t get to the end. Incredibly, women could not compete in an Olympic marathon until eighty-eight years later, in 1984.

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