In an event-by-event reflection on past Olympic Games, this time it is the turn of the men’s marathon


The marathon famously made its debut in the first modern Olympics in 1896 even though the longest race in the ancient Olympics was less than 5km. The legend of Pheidippides carrying the message of victory at the battle of Marathon and then dropping dead after delivering the message in Athens is deemed to be made up but the 1896 organisers looked upon it as the premier event in their Games.

The surprise winner of the 40km event was shepherd Spyridon Louis, who had only finished fifth in the Greek trials but delighted the 100,000 spectators by moving through for a late victory in 2:58:50. Before the race, Louis drank two beers and had wine and cognac during the event!

The 1900 favourite Georges Touquet Daunis decided the 39 degree centigrade heat was too hot and stopped for two beers at a cafe and didn’t resume running but the first of seven finishers was a Luxembourg-born runner representing France – Michel Theato – again just inside three hours for the 40,260km event. Curiously though it was reported he didn’t realise the race he won was the Olympics until 12 years later when he saw a list of winners!

The 1904 race in St Louis was also very hot and held over a very hilly course on dusty roads and the time was a very slow 3:28:53. The winner was again from the home nation as Tom Hicks struggled in having been sustained by large doses of strychnine and brandy. He wasn’t the first in the stadium though as Fred Lorz got there 11 minutes earlier but later admitted he had done so by hitching a ride for 11 miles!

The home nation didn’t win in Athens in 1906 as Canadian Billy Shirring won over a 41,860km event reportedly losing 14 pounds during his 2:51:23.6 run.

Dorando Pietri dropped out after 25km but he returned to make a far bigger impression in London in 1908 (see most memorable race below).

Stockholm in 1912 was another hot day with half the field dropping out and the race was won by South African Kennedy McArthur. A Portuguese runner Francisco Lazaro collapsed during the race and died the following day.

The 1920 race in Antwerp saw better conditions and the Finn Hannes Kolehmainen, who had won the inaugural 10,000m in 1912 won in a world record 2:32:35.8 despite the race being over distance at 42,750 metres. He was slowing at the end though and won by less than 13 seconds.

Finland retained the title in Paris in 1924 in a race delayed for two hours due to a heat wave as another 1912 10,000m medal winner, Albin Stenroos, won by nearly a mile.

The title stayed in Europe in 1928 in Amsterdam when Algerian-born Boughera El Ouafi, who had been seventh in 1924, finished strongly to win gold for France.

The Olympic record was improved by Juan Carlos Zabala to 2:31:36 in Los Angeles in 1932 after Olympic legend and favourite Paavo Nurmi was suspended by the IAAF a week before the race for accepting excess expenses.

It was faster still in 1936. The Argentinean made a game attempt to retain his title and was 90 seconds clear after 25km but faded. The title went to Korean Sohn Kee-Chung, who had to represent Japan as Korea was occupied by Japanese forces at the time in 2:29:19.2 – the first Olympic sub-2:30.

Denied the opportunity to then represent Korea, 40 years later, he was chosen to enter the Seoul opening ceremony with the Olympic torch when they hosted the Games.

In London in 1948, an exhausted Etienne Gailly led into the stadium but in an exciting finale, he faded to third as Argentina won again through marathon debutante Delfo Cabrera.

A debutante also won in Helsinki 1952, but this time it was the legendary Emil Zatopek. The Czech had already won the 5000m and 10,000m in Finland. World record-holder Jim Peters set the early pace and Zatopek asked if the pace was fast enough. Peters said it was too slow and Zatopek later pushed on to take six minutes off the Olympic record with 2:23:03.2.

Zatopek was carrying an injury in 1956 in Melbourne and did well to finish sixth in a race won by Alain Mimoun, who had won three silver medals behind Zatopek on the track, and the Frenchman was yet another debutante.

The 1960 Rome Olympic marathon was run in the dark and featured the first black African winner in the form of the then unknown and barefoot Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia who not took nearly eight minutes off the Olympic record but also bettered the world record with 2:15:16.2.

Bikila returned in Tokyo in 1964 and it was thought he might not be a factor after having had an appendix operation a month before the Games, but he won by four minutes and this time improved the world record to 2:12:11.2.

Because of altitude the pace was much slower in 1968 in Mexico but Ethiopia still won gold as 10,000m runner-up Mamo Wolde won easily by three minutes. Wolde had run the 4x400m relay, 800m and 1500m in the 1956 Olympics.

After finishing fifth in the 10,000m in Munich, Frank Shorter easily won over the longer distance with Wolde third at the age of 40.

Shorter had to settle for silver in Montreal in 1976 behind surprise winner Waldemar Cierpinski who brought the Olympic record down to below 2:10 with 2:09:55. 5000m and 10,000m winner Lasse Viren finished fifth.

East German Cierpinski did what Shorter couldn’t and defended in Moscow in 1980.

The line-up in the 1984 Olympic marathon contained probably the greatest field in history though it was 1976 10,000m runner-up Carlos Lopes, who gained his first marathon victory in 2:09:21 ahead of debutante John Treacy of Ireland.

The 1988 race in Seoul was lined by 36,000 policemen and in an exciting race Gelindo Bordin came through late to overhaul world champion Douglas Wakiihuri and Ahmed Salah.

Barcelona in 1992 saw a surprise victory for Korean Hwang Young-Cho, with a strong burst up the gruelling final Montjuic hill.

Korea almost won in Atlanta in 1996 but South African Josia Thugwane edged Lee Bong Ju by just three seconds.

Third-placer Eric Wainaina advanced to second in Sydney in 2000 but was well beaten by impressive Gezahegne Abera of Ethiopia.

In 2004 in Athens, the traditional marathon course was used and the race was well won by Stefano Baldini though Brazilian bronze medallist Vanderlei de Lima wasn’t helped by being attacked by deranged and defrocked Irish priest Neil Horan while heading the field at 23 miles.

The 2008 race in Beijing saw the first ever Kenyan winner as Samuel Wanjiru blasted through 10km in 29:25 and halfway in very hot conditions in 62:34 but held on well to take three minutes off Lopes’ Olympic record with 2:06:32 to win easily.

In 2011, he died after falling off a balcony at his home following a domestic dispute. He was just 24 years old and many thought could dominate the sport for years to come.

Uganda won their first title in 2012 as Kiprotich shocked the Kenyans and proved it wasn’t a fluke by winning the 2013 World Championships.

Most memorable Olympic marathon: London 1908

The race was extended to the current 26 mile-385 yard distance so the race could finish opposite Queen Alexandria’s royal box on the London track.

After British runners blazed the first half and faded, South African Charles Heffernon had a near four-minute lead at 20 miles. He faded quickly at 24 miles after becoming dizzy after a glass of champagne and a mile later was caught by Dorando Pietri. The Italian went clear but he was also in a dazed start and went the wrong way on entering the track and then corrected,

He was helped up then staggered and fell a number of times and one of the organisers more or less picked him up and carried him across the line as the crowd roared him home.

Shortly afterwards American John Hayes crossed the line but became the winner after a protest about Pietri’s involuntary assistance.

The Italian received a special cup from the Queen the following day and became a big star worldwide. He won two match races in New York against Hayes and his ordeal at London increased the marathon’s popularity.

British successes

Britain won their first medal through Sam Ferris. He was fifth in 1924 and then eighth in 1928 before having the race of his life in Los Angeles in 1932 coming within 19 seconds of gold with a strong finish after his team-mate Duncan Wright had built a minute lead past the 20-mile mark before fading. Ferris was reporting on road races for Athletics Weekly in the 1960s.

In Berlin in 1936, it was coal miner Ernest Harper’s time to finish second though two minutes down on the winner. It was silver again for the third successive time in London in 1948 as 38-year-old Welsh nurse Tom Richards was involved in a close finish and lost out on gold by just 16 seconds.

Britain’s next medal was again silver in 1964 as the pre-race world record-holder Basil Heatley (above, left), sprinted to second place, though well down on winner Abebe Bikila.

Britain managed two top eight places in both the next two races led by Bill Adcocks in fifth in Mexico’s altitude and Ron Hill sixth in Munich before poor years in 1976 and 1980. In the latter all three highly regarded British runners dropped out.

In 1984 Charlie Spedding ran a superb race running away from favourites such as world champion Rob De Castella and forcing the pace late but had to settle for a close third behind Lopes and Treacy and was sixth in 1988.

Since then there have been a few near misses – Richard Nerurkar was fifth in 1996 and Jon Brown was fourth in both 2000 and 2004.

» Check out editions of Athletics Weekly magazine from September 24, 2015, for more from our ‘Countdown to Rio’ series

» For the full Olympic history: Men’s marathon feature, including a complete list of medallists and further facts and stats, see the March 3, 2016, edition of AW magazine