It Happened in Athens (But Not Like This)

A ridiculous depiction of the first modern-day Olympic marathon, Jayne Mansfield’s 1962 film offers a Hollywood bastardization of the story of the famed footrace from Marathon to Athens at the 1896 Olympics. In the role of a Greek theater star, Mansfield plays the love interest of a heavily favored runner, while falling for the underdog shepherd from a small village who enters the race as a long shot.

The only connection to the true story of the contest is the fact that the gold medalist was in fact a shepherd. But even that may not be the case as many myths have grown up around this famed early runner. What is certain is that on April 10, 1896, Greek runner Spiridon “Spiros” Louis bested sixteen other contestants–thirteen of them also from Greece–with a time of 2:58:50. It was the final event of the Athens Olympics, and continues to occupy this closing position on the modern Olympic schedule.

Postcard view of the Athens Olympic stadium, showing Spiro's victory
Postcard view of the Athens Olympic stadium, showing Spiro’s victory

Louis’s victory was a glorious moment for Greece, which had had medal hopes dashed at several earlier events. Winning this event was deemed particularly important, given its historical significance to the country.

Louis took the lead at mile 21, and when he appeared in the stadium the crowd of 100,000 was wild with joy. Not one but two Greek princes leapt out of the stands to join him for his final push, carrying him to the royal box once he’d crossed the finish line.

Louis’s sub-three-hour time is all the more impressive considering the fuel he reportedly consumed on the run: along the way he downed cognac, wine, beer, milk, and eggs.

Spiridon Louis in his award ceremony attire
Spiridon Louis in his award ceremony attire

His family may have had a flock of sheep that the twenty-four-year-old Louis tended, but his father’s main profession was as a water carrier, bringing mineral water to Athens. With this arduous chore, Spiros assisted; otherwise nothing is known of his training regimen.

No Americans participated in the race, but the event inspired the Boston Athletic Association to hold its own marathon the following April, the first running of the Boston Marathon.

Greek runners in March 1896 training for the April 25-mile race, the final event of the Olympics
Greek runners in March 1896 training for the April 25-mile race, the final event of the Olympics

After the race, the king of Greece granted Louis any wish, and legend has it he asked only for a horse and cart to bring back to his fellow villagers in Marousi, to the north of Athens.

Late in life Spiridon Louis had this to say about his victory:

That hour was something unimaginable and it still appears to me in my memory like a dream.