The Olympic Marathon, A Brief History

A Brief History of the Olympic Marathon
by Paul Beck
originally published in Pace Running Magazine Spring and Summer 2016

The day was hot, the course muddy, and the air filled with dust thrown up by horseless carriages driven alongside the race course. The runner wearing number 20 was clearly exhausted, stopping, and walking up many of the hills. With six miles to go, he came to a halt, and the two men in one of the vehicles emerged to assist him, providing him with brandy, eggs, a sponge bath, and a tablet containing sulphate of strychnine to act as a stimulant. His color returned, and he continued on.

Elsewhere on the course, a dog was chasing another runner a mile in the wrong direction.

A gangster movie? No, a scene from the 1904 St. Louis Olympic Marathon, featuring the ultimate winner of the race, Thomas Hicks, and his handlers, Hugh McGrath and Charles Lucas. Despite the assistance, Hicks was not disqualified, and remains the official winner of the 1904 Olympic Marathon, holding the record for the slowest ever finish.

Times have changed!

The Olympic Marathon came into being in 1896 and continues to be the feature race of each Olympiad’s summer games. As a race, the marathon was conceived by Michel Breál, a linguist, historian, and associate of the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games. Coubertin wanted to host the new Olympic Games in Athens, and Breál convinced him that featuring a race modeled after the fabled 490 BC run by Pheidippides would encourage Greek authorities to support the plan. It did, and the marathon was born.

Many things have changed since that first marathon race. The distance run would not be standardized for another 28 years. The Olympic Games have been buffeted by social and political winds over the decades, but the Olympic Marathon has remained a centerpiece of the competition. Let’s take a tour of the Olympic Marathon through the years, taking a look at its inspiring, and sometimes strange history.

The Early Years

At the 1896 Athens Olympic Games, the marathon was an entirely new race, with no records to break and no established tradition. The distance was taken from the legend of Pheidippides, following the 40 kilometer route from the town of Marathon to the finish in Athens. With no modern communications, the largely Greek crowds at the finish line were occasionally updated as to the progress of the runners by couriers on bicycle or horseback. They were ecstatic to welcome the winner of the first marathon, a Greek water carrier named Spindon Louis, finishing in a time of 2:58:50.

Although begun as a purely Olympic event, the marathon quickly caught on, with marathon-distance races held in France, Hungary, the United States, and Denmark in 1896. The first Boston Marathon was held in April 1897, with 18 participants.

Early marathons were a learning experience for all involved, and details like maintaining control of the route and establishing water stations were not always followed. The 1900 Paris Olympic Marathon was the hottest on record, with temperatures ranging from 95-102 degrees F. In addition to the extreme heat, the course was littered with non-racers: pedestrians, bicycles, cars, cows, and sheep. With no established standard for distance, the course was 260 meters longer than the Athens race.

The third Olympic Marathon, at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, was a particularly stark example of the birthing pains for the new race. Water was only provided to the runners at the 6 and 12 mile markers on a warm (82 degree) day, leaving runners to cope for themselves along the way, and causing many runners to drop out early due to dehydration. This was exacerbated by the fact that runners were accompanied by handlers in cars, which threw a lot of dust into the air. Nine miles into the race, American runner Fred Lorz retired and hitched a ride in a passing automobile. At 19 miles, the car itself broke down, and Lorz, revived, decided to finish the course on foot. He passed the leaders and entered the stadium first, where the crowds greeted him as the winner. Lorz later admitted that he hadn’t run the whole course, and was briefly banned from racing, but later reinstated, and won the Boston Marathon in 1905 … on foot. The official winner, Thomas Hicks, had received substantial assistance along the course, including food, brandy, and strychnine as a stimulant (nearly enough to kill him).

Setting The Distance

The course for the 1908 London Olympics Marathon was designed to accommodate the British Royal Family as much as the runners, and came to define the official marathon distance used today. The course began at Windsor Castle and finished in the newly constructed White City Stadium, a distance of 26 miles, but the intent was to have the runners go a half lap within the stadium and finish directly below the Royal Box where Queen Alexandra would be watching. This added another 385 yards to the race, yielding a total distance of 26 miles, 385 yards (42,195 meters).

The winner was John Hayes of the USA, although he finished 32 seconds after Italian Dorando Pietri. But Pietri, exhausted, had collapsed five times inside the stadium, and was helped across the finish by officials concerned that Pietri might die within view of the Queen. Pietri was later disqualified and Hayes declared the winner.

As of 1912, several different distances were still being used for marathons, ranging from the original 40K of Athens 1896 to the London 1908 distance of 42.195K. Organizers of the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm settled on 40.2K, using a distance that was popular in Scandinavian marathons. Stockholm 1912 was also noteworthy for the first (and only) fatality among Olympic Marathon runners: Francisco Lazaro of Portugal. Race day was sunny and warm, and Lazaro had waxed his skin to prevent sunburn, which blocked his ability to perspire. His body was unable to cool sufficiently in the heat and he died as a result of severe electrolyte imbalances and dehydration.

The longest Olympic Marathon took place in Antwerp in 1920, where the course was 42,750 meters (26 miles, 992 yards).

The 1924 Olympics returned to Paris to commemorate the Baron de Coubertin’s retirement as president of the IOC. In 1921, the IAAF had finally standardized the length of marathon races at 42,195 meters, as run in the 1908 London Olympics, and this distance has been used ever since.

The 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Marathon gold was taken by the first native African racer, Boughera El Oafi of Algeria (running for France).

War Gets In The Way

In the midst of World War I, 1916 represented the first of three Summer Olympic Games cancelled due to wartime.

The 1936 Games in Berlin were used for propaganda by Hitler’s Germany as World War II loomed on the horizon. Germany provided very modern facilities, including the first radio broadcasts, and the first closed circuit televising of the games. Kitei Son (Kee Chung-Sohn), born in Korea but running for Japan (which occupied the Korean peninsula in 1936), was the first to break the Olympic marathon 2:30 barrier. He bowed his head on the podium in a reflection of his homeland’s occupation. A newspaper in Seoul was shut down for nine months after running a picture of Son on the winner’s podium with the Rising Sun airbrushed from his shirt. 52 years later, Kee Chung-Sohn carried the Olympic flame into the 1988 Seoul Olympic Stadium, wearing Korean colors in a highly emotional return.

World War II prevented any Olympics from being held in 1940 and 1944. The Olympic Games resumed in London in 1948, where German and Japanese athletes were excluded.

Records Fall

As the runners were gathering for the 1952 Olympic Marathon in Helsinki, many were unsure how seriously to take Emil Zatopek, since three days earlier he had taken track and field gold in the 5,000 meter, and four days before that he had won gold in the 10,000 meter. Not only had he run those races and the heats leading up to them, he had worn out his shoes and had to buy a new pair locally. They were too stiff, so he coated the insides with cooking grease. But Emil Zapotek then turned in the fastest Olympic Marathon finish to date, at 2:23:03.

Political unrest was at the top of everybody’s mind at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Tanks from the USSR had rolled into Hungary, and 45 Hungarian Olympians sought asylum in the West following the Games. The IOC had invited both Communist China and Taiwan to participate, but Communist China boycotted the games. In contrast, East and West Germany provided a combined German team (and again in 1960 and 1964).

In the marathon, a green broken line was painted on the pavement for the entire marathon route. Alain Mimoun (an Algerian native running for France) took marathon gold in Melbourne. He was a long-time rival of Emile Zapotek, having finished second to him in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races at Helsinki. Zapotek would finish 6th.

The winner in Rome in 1960, starting a long tradition of East African distance runners, was Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, who ran the entire marathon barefoot. He had not planned to run unshod, but his shoes had failed and he was unable to find a suitable pair in Rome. Despite the cobbled Roman roads, he finished in a record time of 2:15:16. In Toyko, 1964, Bikila became the first runner to take gold in the Olympic Marathon twice in a row. Running with shoes this time, he smashed both the World and Olympic records with a time of 2:12:11. All told, Bikila amassed 12 career marathon wins.

Geopolitics and Boycotts

Political unrest continued to be felt in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, with South Africa the focus. At first invited, South Africa was later excluded to avoid massive boycotts from other countries. In the marathon, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia won gold, making it a three-peat for Ethiopia. No records were set in Mexico City, owing to the high altitude conditions.

The 1972 Munich Olympics will always be remembered for tragedy. On the 9th day, 11 Israelis were killed by members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. The games were not cancelled, and the marathon was held 5 days later. Frank Shorter of the USA (who coincidentally was born in Munich) took gold. Just before Shorter entered the stadium, an imposter dashed in and ran around the track, leading the crowds to cheer what they thought to be the winner. As Shorter emerged from the tunnel, the cheers turned to boos (directed at the imposter). Shorter was the third and last American Olympic Marathon winner (after Hayes and Hicks) to suffer the “beaten by an imposter” fate.

In Montreal in 1976, a large number of African and Caribbean nations left after the games started due to New Zealand having had a rugby team that had toured South Africa, even though rugby was not an Olympic sport. Rain hampered the marathon, and Frank Shorter finished second to East German Waldemar Cierpinski.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan prompted a major boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, including the United States, Japan, Canada, West German, and 18 African nations. In response four years later, the Soviet Union and 14 Eastern Block nations boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Waldemar Cierpinski took marathon gold again at Moscow, the second man to win two in a row.

Women Join the Race

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were also noteworthy for being the first Olympic Games with women participating in their own marathon. Woman had been running other marathons for some time – the Boston Marathon had been accepting women since 1972 – but the Olympics took longer to accept women as distance runners, having instituted women’s track and field in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics with the 100 meters, but only including the women’s 1500 meter in 1972 and the women’s marathon in 1984.

Joan Benoit, two-time Boston Marathon winner (1979 and 1983), led the field throughout the inaugural women’s Olympic Marathon and won by 94 seconds. In the next women’s Olympic Marathon in Seoul, 1988, Rosa Mota added Olympic gold to her substantial marathon collection, which includes 14 marathon wins.

Modern Times

By the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, bringing new nations to the Olympics. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics represented the Centennial of the modern Olympics. Josiah Thugwana made history as the first black South African to win. Gezahegne Abera of Ethiopia won the men’s race in 2000 in windy conditions at Sydney, with gusts up to 40 mph. He ran much of the race shielded behind other runners before breaking out and winning after the 25 mile point.

Even without the rough-and-tumble conditions of early years, the Athens 2004 marathon was marred by an incident in which Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, running in the lead with 7 kilometers to go, was attacked by an Irish protester and lost precious racing time getting free. He finished third, and received the rarely awarded Pierre de Coubertin Medal for sportsmanship.

Records continue to be broken, with the men’s record set in 2008 by Samuel Kamau Wansiru of Kenya and the women’s fastest time in 2012 by Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia, despite having fallen at the half-way point after colliding with another runner.

From its humble beginnings in 1896, the Olympic Marathon has evolved into a well-managed and immensely popular spectacle for both men and women athletes of all nations. Originated as a race to be held every four years at the Olympic Games, the marathon has become the most prestigious road race in the runner’s lexicon, and that tradition will continue at this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Reference: David E. Martin, Roger W. H. Gynn, “The Olympic Marathon”


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