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Athens 1896 - Key Moments

The historic triumph of Spiridon Louis

The marathon victory of the little shepherd from Amarousion in the first modern Olympic Games was celebrated as a historic event because it was Greece's only track and field win of the Athens Games. It also guaranteed Louis an eternal place in the nation's sporting history.

Louis won in front of huge crowds and during oppressively hot weather, and later became the flag-bearer who led the Greek delegation in the opening ceremony of the Berlin Games in 1936. That day, he handed an olive branch, a symbol of peace, to Adolf Hitler.

Louis almost never got the chance to compete in this marathon (run between 38 kilometers and 40 kilometers), which was included in the program at the request of France in memory of the soldier from Marathon. Though eliminated after the qualifying rounds, the Greek runner nonetheless was included in the race because of the support of his colonel. When the colonel was about to give a lecture to his soldiers, he discovered that he had forgotten his reading glasses. Without hesitation, Louis offered to run the full 22 kilometers to collect the glasses, and he returned in record time to the delayed lecture.

So on April 10, 1896, Louis, then 23, found himself among the 25 competitors at the entry road to the village of Marathon. After a disastrous start, he began a spectacular comeback at the 32-kilometer mark while the majority of his competitors began to feel the full extent of the race and the weather.

Princely welcome

Resistant to the heat and the suffering of the marathon, the young Greek caught up with and overtook leader France's Albin Lermusiaux, then Australian Edwin Flack, who won the 800 and 1500. At the entry to Olympic Stadium in Athens, a cannon shot announced the winner's imminent arrival to the excited crowds. An enormous cheer went up when Louis appeared on the track, waved on by an ecstatic Greek crowd that cried: Hellas! Hellas! (Greece! Greece!) At the end of the race, King George's three sons rushed forward and, ignoring royal protocol, hoisted the young shepherd and carried him to the royal box to receive congratulations from the king.

In 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds, Louis recorded a historic victory that the Greeks were only too happy to embrace. In becoming the first marathon champion of the modern Olympics, Louis symbolically carried on the torch that the soldier Philippides carried from Marathon to the Athenians (a distance of 42 kilometers) to announce Themistocles' victory over the Persians.

Copyright 2008 Agence France-Presse.

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