Innocent Times | A Column By Mark Tucker

Being the year of Rio and the upcoming 31st Modern Olympic Games (Summer) I thought I would look back at the earliest versions of the Modern Games, starting way back in Athens, 1896. And to avoid boring you, I am only going to cherry-pick a few interesting stories related to the running events; things that you will almost certainly not get to see in Rio.

Athens 1896 Panathenaic Stadium
Picture: Athens 1896 Panathenaic Stadium

The obvious place to start is with Edwin Flack, ‘The Lion of Athens’, who, as many people already know, won both the 800 and 1500 metres at the first ever Modern Olympic Games, becoming Australia’s first Olympic champion. Fast forward one hundred and twenty years, to our age of increasing specialisation, and this achievement is unlikely to be repeated in Rio. But that’s not the interesting part. Going on with the generalist/specialist theme, what we will definitely not see in Rio is a track athlete also competing in the tennis, something which Flack did in Athens when he competed in both the singles and doubles events, losing, not surprisingly, both his first matches (Imagine the modern day equivalent: Gregson playing against Djokovic then racing the 1500m the next day!). Somehow – even though Flack and his British partner in the doubles lost their only match of the tournament – they received a bronze medal after getting a bye straight into the semi-final!1 Things have certainly changed. Ah, “these were innocent times” as old Grandma says with an American twang to her Grandson Connor in Little Britain USA.

Australian athlete Edwin Flack.
Picture: Australian athlete Edwin Flack.

But coming back to Flack… he also entered the Marathon, which is very common now among Olympic 800 and 1500 meter runners: NOT! And he nearly pulled off the win, leading at the 34km mark –  much to the dismay of the locals who threatened and abused him2, wanting their own man to win –  before collapsing and the locals getting their wish, as local man Spyridon Louis flew past on his way to becoming the first ever Olympic Marathon Champion. Unfortunately Flack didn’t finish and, according to some reports (which may or may not be true) he was so delirious that he punched one of the locals who had tried to assist him.

What isn’t in too much dispute is that Louis indulged in a glass of wine on his way to victory. According to reports, his future father-in-law passed him a beaker of wine (some say it was cognac) around ten kilometers from the finish which he proceeded to gulp down before powering on for the win. And that came after the previous night’s drinking and celebrations:

“That rainy Thursday, we celebrated in a way that probably no other athletes have ever done before a marathon. What did we know about abstaining during training?”3 (Spyridon Louis reflection on his win).

Spyridon Louis
Picture: Spyridon Louis

And the wine continued to flow during the 1908 London Olympic Marathon. While the runners were battling the humid conditions, each other and the challenging distance that had to be covered, Champagne, brandy and beef broth were offered to competitors as they raced, with the eventual winner, Dorando Pietri (later to be disqualified), having been seen by onlookers gargling wine at various stages throughout the race. Unfortunately Pietri dramatically collapsed a number of times within the stadium and was eventually helped to his feet before he crossed the line in first place. Because of this ‘extra assistance’ there was a protest from the second placed American, Johnny Hayes, and Pietri was subsequently disqualified. Still, it wasn’t all bad for Pietri – he was later presented with a silver cup from Queen Alexandra for his bravery and gained much respect from all who viewed the race and heard his story 4.

Finally, a story to make the modern runner weep with envy: An Australian sprinter once won an Olympic gold medal in a distance event while running for Great Britain 5. His name was Stanley Rowley and the year was 1900, the second ever Modern Olympic Games, and the first and only time the track events were held on grass. The distance event in question was the 5000 metres teams’ event (another casualty of the Olympic programme that distance runners and fans would love to see resurrected). Anyway, not wanting to steal Stanley’s glory, but he didn’t actually finish the race after stopping to walk and then ending up so far behind everyone else that the officials stopped him after 3,500 meters (7 laps of the 500m track) and decided to award him ten points for finishing last in tenth place5, which was enough to secure the win for the British team who needed Stanley to complete their five men squad and thus be allowed to compete. Being 1900, the year before federation, the Australian states were still British colonies, hence Stanley’s eligibility to run for the ‘mother country’ even after wearing the Australian singlet with pride earlier in the games, winning multiple medals in the sprint events.  But his big moment, an Olympic gold medal, came in a distance event that he didn’t even finish. If only we were born one hundred years earlier!

Photo: Stanley Rowley
Photo: Stanley Rowley

So to 2016 and the Rio Olympics, where we will see plenty of sports drink, water and gels, but probably no wine (well, at least not until after the race); competitors only focusing on one or two events, not straying into other sports for a ‘spot of tennis old chap?’; and definitely no sprinters winning gold medals in the distance events, or vice versa. However, we will most likely see the men’s marathon run in a time almost an hour quicker than what Louis ran in 1896, the women’s marathon also significantly quicker, along with the 1500m being run close to a minute quicker than what Flack achieved when winning his first gold medal. “The times they are a-changin’”, as Bob Dylan famously sang, and they are always a-changin’. Nothing stands still.



3  David Miller’s Official History of the Olympic Games and IOC, 1894-2012


5  A World History Of Long Distance Running (1880-2002): Track Events – Men and Women

(Roberto L. Quercetani)


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