As the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro started and the Marathon competitions are just a couple of days away, I’d like to share some great stories about past Olympic Marathon races. The men’s Marathon has been in every Olympic Games since the beginning of the modern time of the games in 1896 and has, especially in the early years, produced some stories that are unbelievable today. So here are my personal top 8:
At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens 1896 the Marathon was planned as a special race from the city of Marathon to Athens inspired by the legend of the ancient greek courier Pheidippides. As the first largely organized Marathon race, this event was the start of the nowadays so popular Marathon competitions all over the world. The local runner Spyridon Louis won largely because two runners in front of him, Albin Lermusiaux and Edwin Flack, needed to quite the race probably because they only drank alcohol during the competition.
After winning the 5k and 10k races in 1952 with new olympic records, the Czech running legend Emil Zátopek decided last-minute to also compete in the Marathon, his first ever. At the beginning of the race one of the favorites Jim Peters took an early lead. He started fast and was way under his own record time after 16 kilometers. After Zátopek reached to Peters he asked him: “Sorry, this is my first Marathon. Are we too fast?”. Peters answered more as a joke to a beginner: “To fast? No we are too slow!”. Zátopek took it as an advice, speeded up and won his first ever Marathon race, again with a new olympic record time.
The Olympic Marathon 1960 in Rome, Italy was special for many reasons. Until today it was the only Marathon at Olympic Games that didn’t start or end in a stadium. Also it started in the evening so at the time the first finishers arrived it was already dark. The winner of the race, the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, not only was the first African Marathon gold medalist but was also the first and only runner who won an Olympic Marathon without wearing shoes. He set a new olympic record and also won four years later but this time with shoes on his feet.
Have you ever wondered why the Marathon has such a strange distance of exactly 42,195km? The reason can be found in the Olympic Games in London in the year 1908. After the previous Olympics distances between 40km and 41.86km were covered, the race in London featured again a new distance. It was planned to run from Windsor Castle to the new olympic stadium in London for which a distance of 26 miles (41.85km) was measured. Inside the stadium another 385 yards needed to be covered so the race’s finish was in front of the royal box. After the dramatic finish of the 1908 race, some revenge competitions were organized using exactly the same conditions, a distance of 42,195km. After running yet other distances in the 1912 and 1920 Olympics the IAAF set the official Marathon distance in 1921 to the now common 42,195km that were first run in London.
At the summer games in 1904 in St. Louis the organizers started the Marathon in the afternoon, forcing the runners to race at a temperature of 32° Celcius (90° Fahrenheit). That’s one of the reasons only 14 of the 32 starters finished the race. The American Fred Lorz was the first to cross the finish line, but he cheated. After dropping out and riding by car, the car broke down at mile 19, he re-entered the race and celebrated his win in the stadium. Soon after his subterfuge was revealed and a life long ban from racing followed (but was lifted one year later). The British-born winner Thomas Hicks not only got several doses of a rat poison (strychnine sulfate) mixed with Brandy during the race but was also aided across the finish line by his coaches.
Also the Cuban postman Andarín Carvajal arrived at the start of the race in the last-minute after loosing all his money in New Orleans and hitchhiking to St. Louis. He needed to run in his street clothes and hasn’t eaten in 40 hours. In an orchard on the Marathon course he ate some rotten apples that gave him strong stomach cramps. Despite these struggles Carvajal ended the race in fourth place.
In 1984 for the first time the Olympic Games also featured a Women’s Marathon. After the world record holder from the US Joan Benoit won the race, the Swiss runner Gabriela Andersen-Schiess entered the stadium in total exhaustion. On her last lap she was totally cramping up and was barely able to walk. It was to her iron will she managed to finish the race (in 37th place) collapsing at the finish line where she got immediate medical treatment. Below you find the iconic video of that last lap:
One of the favorites in the 2004 Women’s Marathon, the world record holder Paula Radcliffe struggled to get back to the top runners after 35km. She tried to restart her race with 6k to go but eventually dropped out of the competition. One of the reasons for this failure was pre-race nutrition according to Radcliffe, a statement that upset her sponsors. She was sponsored by a nutrition company that had the slogan “It helps you finish”. Radcliffe also dropped out of the 10k race that year.
In the 2004 Men’s race from Marathon to Athens a group of several runners began the race at a modest pace. The successful attack by the Brazilian Vanderlei de Lima left him in the lead until the 35km mark. It was there where de Lima was attacked by an Irish protester that was standing within other spectators. Soon others helped de Lima get free of the attacker but he lost not only precious seconds but also his rhythm. De Lima bounced back and ended up winning the Bronze medal. He was later awarded for his sportsmanship because he didn’t complain at all but enjoyed the winning of the Olympic medal. He was even chosen to ignite the Olympic fire in this years Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Below you find the video of the incident:
What is your favorite Olympic Marathon story? Share it in the comments section below.