Spyros Louis (12 January 1873 – 26 March 1940), was a Greek water-carrier who won the first modern-day Olympic marathon at the 1896 Summer Olympics. Following his victory, he was celebrated as a national hero
How did a young man born into a poor peasant family who helped his father make a living as a water carrier plot to catch the attention of the prettiest girl in Marousi? Easy. Win an Olympic marathon.
According to Ozy.com, Greek historian Dimities Masouris states that “Louis wasn’t interested in athletic competition,” he just “wanted to win so he could impress the prettiest girl in Marousi: Helen.”
His enthusiasm must have got the best of him as he beat out the competition in such a fierce manner that he was later accused of cheating by the United States, France and Australia.
They just couldn’t accept that they were beaten by the peasant water carrier who ran the marathon event in a fustanella – a traditional skirt-like garment.
Perhaps it was the motivation of love that empowered Spyros to persevere.
As he approached the finish line at the Panathenaic Stadium 80,000 Greek fans rose to their feet in celebration and the runner had to actually be escorted to safety by King George I’s royal entourage.
Louis recalled the moments after his victory on April 10, 1896: “That hour was something unimaginable and it still appears to me in my memory like a dream … Twigs and flowers were raining down on me. Everybody was calling out my name and throwing their hats in the air …”
The victory was euphoric to the Greeks and University of Chicago Professor John MacAloon, an authority on de Coubertin and the Olympic Games accredits Spyros for the Olympic fever that still resounds today as he “created the modern Olympic Games.”
Louis was an Olympics hero
“Without Louis, the Athens Games would have no epic hero, no master symbol to condense and express so richly so many historical themes,” MacAloon says.
Later on, as the King was so delighted by Spyros’ victory, he offered the athlete any prize that he desired. He didn’t ask for riches or anything extraordinary, just a donkey-drawn carriage to help him and his father with carrying water.
Spyros lived a modest life as a long-forgotten Olympic hero. He did however win his greatest victory of all – he married the love of his life, Helen, and continued to work as a water-carrier.
He died on March 26, 1940. In Greece, various sports establishments are named after Louis. These include the Olympic Stadium of Athens where the 2004 Summer Olympics were held, as well as the road outside the stadium.