Golden Olympian of the 1st modern Olympic Games (1873 – 1940)
Spyros Louis was a water carrier-turned national hero, who won 1st place in the marathon of the 1st modern Olympic Games of 1896 in Athens. His victory granted Greece glory reminiscent to that of the ancient Olympic Games.
Louis was born to a poor family in Marousi, a then suburb of Athens. He helped his father carry water across the village on foot. He was also illiterate and had failed the same class twice. Nevertheless, he made up for his mischief with his incredible speed and stamina, which were evident from a young age.
Louis joined the Greek team of the Olympics at the last moment, upon the incitement of Major Papadiamantopoulos, a judge at the marathon who also happened to be Louis’ commander in the army and who was knowledgeable of Louis’ capabilities. He participated in the marathon event, which was 40 kilometers in length, starting from Marathon and ending in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.
In spite of the high expectations of the public, Louis’ victory seemed improbable. Having joined without any prior training or preparation, Louis’ results in the qualifying games were disappointing, having finished 5th in the second preliminary races. Louis wore a foustanella and tsarouchia, which were unconventional for running.
The participants included 4 foreign athletes, 12 Greeks and the water carrier Spyros Louis. The French Albin Lermusiaux, who had previously won 3rd place in the 1500 meters, led the race early on. At the 32nd km, however, Lermusiaux collapsed from exhaustion and Australian Edwin Flack took the lead. Soon after, Flack, who was not accustomed to such long distances, was surpassed by Louis. The Greek entered the stadium triumphantly, where 50.000 overwhelmed spectators apotheosized him, throwing flowers and yelling his name. Louis completed the race in 2 hours and 58 minutes.
Louis received a myriad of gifts, from jewelry to a lifelong free shave at the barber’s shop. In the end, Louis got only two things he desired: a carriage to help him carry water and the hand of his beloved one, for whom he had run in the marathon.
Spyros Louis never ran again in any other athletic event, choosing instead to live a peaceful life in his village with his family, working as a water carrier, a gardener and a local police officer. He made frequent public appearances whenever he was invited to athletic events. His last public appearance was in the Olympic Games of Berlin in 1936, where he was invited by Adolf Hitler, himself an admirer of Spyros Louis. Hitler received an olive branch from Louis, a symbol of peace.
Spyros Louis remained a humble man until the end of his life in 1940, where he died in complete poverty, a few months before the Italian invasion. He gained eternal glory for being Greece’s first Olympian after 1500 years. His name has become part of a phrase in the Greek language «Γίνομαι Λούης» (To become Louis), meaning to disappear from site by running very fast.
- «Ο Σπύρος Λούης έτρεξε στους Ολυμπιακούς του 1896 για τα μάτια της ωραίας Ελένης από το Μαρούσι. Πως ο φτωχός νερουλάς μπήκε την τελευταία στιγμή στη λίστα των αθλητών και κέρδισε το χρυσό…». Μηχανή του Χρόνου. Mixanitouxronou.gr. Web. May 16, 2018.
- Σπύρος Λούης 1873 – 1940. σαν σήμερα. Sansimera.gr. Web. May 16, 2018.
- Spyros Louis, the first Marathon race winner of the Modern Olympic Games, 1896. Rare Historical Photos. Rarehistoricalphotos.com. Web. May 16, 2018.