The long and bizarre history of the Olympic marathon

Keep on running.
Keep on running.
Image: Reuters/Matt Dunham/Pool (CHINA)
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Established as a tribute to an Ancient Greek legend, the Olympics made the marathon the global participatory sport it is today.

In its history, the marathon has transformed ordinary men through chance and circumstance into heroes and villains, a succession of strange and endearing stories that encapsulate the highs and lows of the Olympic dream. But the history of the men’s marathon also may have the oddest stories of any sport at the Olympics.

The origins of the race date back to 490 BC, when Pheidippides ran for two days from the town of Marathon to Athens to deliver word of victory over the invading Persians. Legend has it the messenger collapsed and died after proclaiming, “We won.” Already it seems strange to commemorate a historic event by reenacting the last run of a dying man.

The first marathon at the inaugural 1896 Olympic Games in Athens retraced that historic route along rough country roads and sweltering temperatures. Three Greeks crossed the finish line to take the top places—maybe no surprise given that 12 of the 17 runners were Greek and only nine men finished—but a complaint revealed that the third-placed Spiridon Belokas had covered part of the way in a carriage, earning the dubious honor of the first Olympic runner ever disqualified for cheating.

It was an odd start to the marathon’s Olympic history, but no marathon will ever be as strange as the one that followed eight years later in St. Louis.

Tied to the 1904 World’s Fair, the race was run along roads uneven, deep in dust or across cracked paving, and encompassing seven hills up to 300ft (91m) high. Few, if any, cordons were in place, so runners had to dodge wagons, trains, trolley cars, and pedestrians. Despite being run in scorching 90°F (32°C) heat, there were only two places to get water, organizers wanting to “minimize fluid intake to test the limits and effects of purposeful dehydration, a common area of research at the time,” said the Smithsonian magazine.

No wonder only half of the athletes actually finished.

If the circumstances were strange, the participants, and results, were even stranger. Of 32 runners, 10 were Greeks who had never run a marathon before, and two were Tswana tribesman—the first black Africans to compete at an Olympics. They’d actually come to St. Louis as part of a Boer war exhibit (both were really students from South Africa) but somehow got drafted into the race, arriving at the start line barefoot but finishing ninth and 12th.

The ninth-place finisher, Len Tau, might have done better had he not been chased a mile off course by dogs.

Then there was Felix Carbajalm, a five-foot-tall Cuban postman who’d raised money to attend the Games through events across Cuba, but then lost it all in a dice game and had to hitchhike to St. Louis. He arrived at the the start line in a pair of street shoes and trousers cut to look like shorts. Midway through the race, he stopped at an orchard to snack on apples, which turned out to be rotten so he had to lie down and take a nap. Carbajalm still finished fourth.

First past the line was Fred Lorz, by day a bricklayer. Lorz almost had the medal around his neck, when someone pointed out that he’d actually stopped because of cramps nine miles into the race and hitched a ride in a car, which then broke down. Feeling better, he decided to jog to the finish and when officials thought he was the winner, Lorz decided to play along “as a practical joke.” His joke earned him a 12-month running ban, but he returned to win the Boston marathon a year later.

Thomas Hicks struggles across the finish line.
Thomas Hicks struggles across the finish line.
Image: Public domain/Wikimedia

The real winner was Thomas Hicks, a British man running for the US—but just barely. He, too, suffered the extreme physicality of the race and could only get by with his training staff feeding him the stimulant stychinine—also used in rat poison—as well as egg whites and brandy. Hicks had to be carried across the finish line and treated immediately.

It’s all uphill from here

Things never got as farcical as that, but the next winner, Italian Dorando Pietri at the 1908 London Olympics, also had to be helped across the line having lost the strength of his legs, and his mind, from exhaustion and dehydration. Pietri made it all the way to the Olympic Stadium in White City—three minutes ahead of the next runner—but took a wrong turn and had to be herded by officials back on track.

Dorando Pietri crosses in London.
Dorando Pietri crosses in London.
Image: Public domain/Wikimedia

“After the doctors had poured stimulants down his throat he was dragged to his feet, and finally was pushed across the line with one man at his back and another holding him by the arm,” according to the New Yorker (paywall).

The random nature of the Olympic marathon also made a permanent mark on the sport that year. Until that time, the length was unfixed—the first marathon was only set up to recreate the Marathon-to-Athens route—and largely adapted to the terrain. The Brits devised a course running from Windsor to White City, approximately 26 miles.

To accommodate the queen, this was adjusted to start the race from Windsor Castle, and an extra 385 yards added to bring it to a finish exactly in front of the Royal Box. This arbitrary length was subsequently adopted as the marathon’s official 26.2-mile distance (paywall) and led to the tradition, still practiced by some today, of marathon runners shouting “God save the queen” as they reach the last mile.

As marathons became more established and popular, so the farces came to an end, but there have still been surprising occurrences. In 1960, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia ran barefoot because the shoes he was given were too tight, yet became the first black African to win Olympic gold. He successfully defended his marathon title four years later in Tokyo, despite suffering appendicitis six weeks before the race.

This year’s Games has seen Swedish triplet sisters and German twins run the women’s event in Rio.

But perhaps the best story is of Shizo Kanakuri, one of the first Asians invited to take part in an Olympics—this one in Stockholm in 1912.

Kanakuri did eventually finish.
Kanakuri did eventually finish.
Image: Public domain

But the Japanese endured a horrid 18-day journey by ship and the Trans-Siberian railway to get to Sweden. He arrived to a 32°C heatwave, causing most of the runners to suffer from hyperthermia. Kanakuri, running in traditional Japanese tabi (two-toed canvas shoes), was already struggling with the local food and lost consciousness midway through the race.

Taken in by a local family, he fell asleep on their couch and woke up later in the night. Embarrassed, he neglected to tell race officials and simply returned to Japan. Though he competed in subsequent Olympics, Swedish authorities had him listed as missing for over 50 years.

Kanakuri did eventually finish his race—invited back to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the 1912 Games, he crossed the finish line to record the longest-ever official marathon time of 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds.

“It was a long trip,” he told reporters. “Along the way, I got married, had six children, and 10 grandchildren.”