Spiridon Louis delights Greece at the first Olympics

Deutsche Presse-Agentur
July 23, 2004, Friday

FEATURE: Spiridon Louis delights Greece at the first Olympics

By John Bagratuni, dpa

When Spiridon Louis was taken from Athens to Marathon on April 9,
1896, he was a poor shepherd from the village of Maroussi near the
Greek capital. But a day later the 23-year-old was the biggest hero
of the first Olympics of the modern era – winning the marathon race
by more than seven minutes and with it a place in sports history. The
legend has it that he drank a glass of wine en route and that Greek
King George I. and Crown Prince Constantine accompanied him on the
final metres to the finish line in the Panathinaikon stadium. Apart
from the official prizes – a silver medal, olive branch and diploma –
Louis received a goat, a donkey cart, a pension and a small piece of
land for his heroics. The marathon race had its tradition in ancient
Greece, but was in fact never part of the ancient Olympics which were
outlawed in 393 A.D. by Roman Emperor Theodosius because he
considered them pagan. The idea to revive the Games came from French
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who later become president of the
International Olympic Committee, in the early 1890s. Originally due
to take place 1900 in Paris, the first edition was brought forward to
1986 in Athens (the ancient site of Olympia was remote and
undeveloped) due to huge support from Greece. Prince Constantine’s
organising committee raised the necessary funds through the sale of
souvenir stamps and a donation from a businessman allowed the
renovation of the Panathinaikon stadium to become the first Olympic
stadium. It was there on Easter Monday, April 6, 1896, that George I.
officially declared open the first modern era Olympics which brought
together 245 athletes (all men) from 14 countries in 43 events. James
Connolly of the U.S. became the first Olympic champion by winning the
triple jump – 1,527 years after Varasdates, Prince of Armenia, was
the last recorded Olympic winner in 369. Connolly, 27, left Harvard
University to compete at the Games and was thrown out of the elite
university for this move. He was not rehabilitated until 1949.
Compatriot Thomas Burke won the 100m and 400m races and American
brothers John and Sumner Paine finished first and second in the
revolver shooting event. German Carl Schuhmann was the most
successful athlete, winning three gymnastics events, the wrestling
competition, placing third in weightlifting and fourth in the shot
put. Rowing and yachting events had to be cancelled owing to bad
weather while the swimming took place in chilly Mediterranean Sea
water in Piraeus. The first modern era Olympics lasted 10 days and
set the stage for the Games’ huge success. They now return to Greece
for the first time in 108 years and run August 13-29. The marathon
will end in the Panathinaikon stadium again, but the real centre of
the Games including the Olympic stadium are in Maroussi – Louis’
former home which has for a long time become part of Athens.