A water carrier carries the day

The inaugural edition of the Modern Olympic Games is remembered the most for Spiridon Louis’s great victory in the marathon. Sportstar also looks at other notable athletes in the early years of the Olympics.

Published : Jul 28, 2016 20:24 IST

The start of the 100m final in the 1986 Olympics in Athens.
The start of the 100m final in the 1986 Olympics in Athens.

The start of the 100m final in the 1986 Olympics in Athens.

Browsing through the fascinating history of athletics in the Olympics one comes across accounts of not only the phenomenal physical resources of the athletes but also of their superstitions, rivalries and all-round abilities. Comparing the results in the 1920s and 1930s with those available today would be meaningless since facilities, track, equipment, scientific support etc have evolved a great deal. Yet it is an interesting exercise. As Mel Watman, veteran English writer and statistician, notes in Magic of Athletics, a compilation of great athletes and their feats brought out by the IAAF in 1999, Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco and Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia would have left Paavo Nurmi of Finland at his best over 26 seconds behind in 1500m and “two minutes adrift” in the 5000m. Nurmi’s 1924 Olympic feats were unparalleled, though.

The following series of compilations from past Olympics, of athletes and events, has drawn its information entirely from IAAF publications

1896 Athens — Spiridon Louis

It is said Pheidippides ran from Marathon, a village north-east of the Greek capital, to Athens to announce the victory of the Greek Army over the Persians in 490 BC. He dropped dead just after announcing the news. Or so went the legend.

Michael Breal, a French historian, devised the ending of the Olympic Games, revived in 1896, when they returned to where the Ancient Games were held — Athens. He wanted an endurance event to provide the finale to the Games and he named it Marathon from where Pheidippides had set off according to legend. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of Modern Olympics, is said to have supported Breal’s idea and the Greeks too endorsed it.

Thus began marathon, a road event now standardised to 42.195km, not so exact in early years, run in every Olympic Games. Women started running the marathon only in the Los Angeles Games in 1984.

Spiridon Louis, a Greek water carrier, looked the unlikely hero for the home nation in April 1896 when the athletes lined up for the start of the marathon. Louis had finished only fifth in a trial 17 days prior to the actual event.

At the half-way mark Louis was lagging behind, but once Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux who led initially with Australian Edwin Flack, gave up, Louis was ready to make his bid. He caught up with Flack a few kilometres from the stadium. The Australian, winner of the 800m and 1500m at the Games, not used to the distance, stopped, leaving the Greek with an easy task.

The impending arrival of Louis was announced to the Crown Prince and to the 100,000 spectators inside the stadium. There was near pandemonium in the stadium, historians noted, when Louis arrived. He was timed in 2:58:50, very creditable considering the heat and dust. It was 20 minutes faster than his fifth-place finish in the trial.

Greek Charilaos Vasilakos was second in 3:06.03 with Hungarian Gyulia Keliner taking the bronze in 3:06.35.

Louis was showered with gifts by the overjoyed Greeks and got much more than what he had dreamed of taking originally, a horse and a cart for him to carry water to Athens.

The inaugural edition of the Modern Olympic Games is remembered for Louis’s great victory in the marathon. But there were other notable athletes, too.

Thomas Burke of the US was one. Burke was more of a one-lap runner rather than a pure sprinter. But in the absence of two leading sprinters of that time, Bernard Wefers and Charles Bradely, Burke was chosen for both the events. There was no 200 metres. The US team was mainly drawn from club-level athletes and Burke happened to be the only national champion (400m) from 1895. He scored the 100-400 double, easily winning both, in 12.0s and 54.2s.

Sprinters used different start positions during those days. Burke was one of the athletes who used a crouch start. The lanes were differentiated by ropes tied to stakes. The surface was cinder. In Athens the sprinters had to negotiate “hairpin bends!” In later years some of the 200m were held on straight courses.

1900 Paris

Walter Tewksbury of the US scored a rare double in the 200m and 400m hurdles. In the 200 metres, Tewksbury beat Norman Pritchard 22.2 to 22.5. Pritchard was listed as a representative of India for several years after Independence. He happened to be a Calcutta-born Englishman who later went on to act in films. The IAAF books now show him under Britain though there is a note that says his nationality at the time of participation was debatable and may continue to be so. The editor of the IAAF statistics book at the 2012 London Olympic Games, Mark Butler, invites further “advice and comment” on this topic.

Before competing in the 100m Tewksbury had won the 400m hurdles in an Olympic record time of 57.6s, beating Frenchman Henri Tauzin who later that same day won the 2500m steeplechase, an event that evolved into 3000m in later years.

The hurdles used in the 400m event were 30-foot long telegraph poles except for the last one, a water jump!

Pritchard, 25, who competed in five events (60m, 100m, 200m, 110m hurdles, 200m hurdles) also took the silver in the 200m hurdles behind American Alvain Kraenzlein who was the winner in the 110m hurdles as well. The 200m hurdles was discontinued after 1900.

1904 St. Louis

Archie Hahn was the 100m winner in St. Louis where he also took the 60m (discontinued event) and the 200m over a straight course. There were six finalists in the 100m, all Americans!

Hahn went on to win the 100m at the Intercalated Games in Athens in 1906. The IAAF does include these games in its official records, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after having initially agreed to an interim event did not support it later as an official event and does not account for the medals in these games at present.

The Americans dominated the sprints, jumps and throws during those days and with the games being held at home their stamp of supremacy was complete.

The 400 metres had a bunched start! Twelve finalists competed in the race that was run as a straight final and there were six Americans. Harry Hillman (US) won in 49.2s, an Olympic record. Interestingly, George Poage, another American who finished sixth, was bumped from behind by second-placed Frank Walter (US) and Joseph Fleming, another American team-mate.

Myer Prinstein took the long jump and triple jump gold medals. In triple jump he defended the title he won in 1900 with an effort of 14.35m. He had won the silver in long jump in the previous edition.

The 19-year-old American giant, Ralph Rose (1.98m, 107kg) was the shot put winner with a world record-equalling 14.81m. Wesley Coe, another American, and co-favourite overtook Rose briefly early in the competition but Rose prevailed comfortably in the end, 14.81 to 14.40.

1908 London

Reggie Walker became the youngest sprint champion, winning the 100m in 10.7s, rounded up to 10.8, according to rules then, and approved as Olympic record. The South African, still shy of his 19th birthday, beat American James Rector who was credited with a time of 10.8s, the same as Robert Kerr of Canada.

Those days timings marked with ‘e’ (e.g. 10.7e) meant “estimated” mark where the official timings were “missing” or “evidently wrong”. All the 100m timings in 1908 ended with an extension of ‘e’.

Those were also days of great rivalry between Britons and Americans. The Anglo-American ‘war’ saw history’s first and only “walkover” in athletics with Wyndham Halswelle of Britain “winning” the 400m gold, running all alone!

The initial run saw American John Carpenter running diagonally, seemingly blocking the path of Halswelle, winning in what the Americans claimed was a time of 47.8s and the Englishmen put it at 48.6s. It was immaterial though which timing would be taken as official, for, the race ended in confusion.

Track officials invaded the track and broke the finishing tape before Carpenter could breast it. Carpenter was disqualified and a re-run ordered two days later. Carpenter’s team-mates William Robins and John Taylor refused to run in obvious solidarity with the disqualified American.

That was how Halswelle ran alone to win in 50.0. An Olympic gold it was all the same, but one that was won in a farcical race. The American association (AAU) refused to recognise Carpenter’s disqualification.

Martin Sheridan of US retained his discus gold with 40.89m while John Flanagan, also of the US, won his third straight hammer title with 51.92m, an Olympic record.

1912 Stockholm

The beginning of a glorious era of great Finnish distance runners happened in Stockholm. This was where Hannes Kolehmainen made his Olympic debut, at the age of 23, winning the 5000m and 10,000m, the former in world record time, and the cross-country (12km) title.

Kolehmainen had a family tradition to talk of when he came to Stockholm. His elder brothers, Taaverti and William were both marthoners. Before the Olympics he ran 15:16.4 (5000m) and 31:47.5 (10,000m) on consecutive days in Helsinki.

In Stockholm Kolehmainen ran six races in nine days and won all of them. He ran the 10,000m heats on July 7 and the next day ran the final! On July 9 the 5000m heats were gone through and the next day the final.

The Finn’s clash with Frenchman Jean Bouin in the 5000m was the most-awaited duel in the Olympics. Bouin was the fastest in the heats with 15:05.0. In the final he started sprinting at the ‘bell’. The Frenchman was never more than four metres ahead of Kolehmainen. The Finn closed the gap on the backstraight and caught up with his rival on the home straight before edging ahead with 20 metres to go. It was a world record of 14:36.6 for Kolehmainen against Bouin’s 14:36.7.

In the 10,000m Kolehmainen did not have much problems against Lewis Tewanima of the US and won in 31:20.8. (It was initially wrongly approved as world record in the IAAF world record progression list putting Bouin’s mark of 30:58.8 in 1911 as 1913, but the mistake was rectified later years).

On July 12 Kolehmainen set a world record of 8:36.9 in the 3000m team race (discontinued event) in which Finland failed to qualify for the final. And on July 15 the great Finn took the cross-country (discontinued event) gold in 45:11.6.

Kolehmainen would go on to win the marathon gold eight years later at the Antwerp Games and try the distance once more, in Paris in 1924 without being able to complete the course.

Stockholm would also be remembered for Jim Thorpe, an American Indian, who emerged as the best all-round athlete of the world by winning the pentathlon and decathlon. But Thorpe, unfortunately, is not being remembered just for that. He fought all his life to regain his honour of being a double gold winner but after being stripped of his titles since he was supposed to have played minor league baseball for a small amount of money, he was reinstated only posthumously. He died in 1953 while the American association (AAU) reinstated him in 1973 and the IOC in 1982.

Thorpe won the pentathlon first, winning four of the five events and in decathlon, spread over three days, he amassed a world-record tally of 8412.955 points in winning the Olympic title.

With so much of attention being given to the Kolehmainen saga, we should not forget the sprints where Ralph Craig once again underlined the American dominance with a double, winning 100m in 10.8s and 200m in 20.7s.

The timings were recorded up to one-tenth of a second for the first time in Olympics in Stockholm. Previously timings were measured in fractions of a second in one-third, quarters, one-fifth etc. Many of the timings were later converted or rounded off into one-tenths. The lanes in Stockholm were separated no longer by ropes but by chalk on the track. The cords were to re-appear in 1924 in Paris!

1920 Antwerp

The great Paavo Nurmi era started in Antwerp. The ‘Phantom Finn’ won the 10,000m and the cross-country gold medals and was second in the 5000m. The fight for the 10,000m gold turned out to be primarily between Nurmi and Frenchman Joseph Guillemot. The Frenchman was ahead at the ‘bell’ and led on the backstraight after a close battle past the half-way mark. Nurmi fought back on the straight and easily held off Guillemot, 31:45.8 to 31:47.2.

This was just the beginning of Nurmi. He would be back in Paris in 1924 and we will have another opportunity to recount Nurmi’s unbelievable resources in the coming paragraphs.

Germany was not invited to the Antwerp Games (also missed next edition) and that meant more American medal sweep. Charles Paddock (USA) won the 100m. For the third straight Games the short sprint winning time was stuck at 10.8s.

1924 Paris

This was Paavo Nurmi’s Games. Now 27 years old, with a couple of world records under his belt, Nurmi was ready to take on the world. Interestingly the world records came in a dress rehearsal in Helsinki that Nurmi sought and got to assure the Finnish authorities that he could run the 1500m and the 5000m within the space of one hour. In the process he clocked a world record of 3:52.6 in the 1500m and 50 minutes later timed 14:28.2 for the longer distance.

Apart from 1500m and 5000m Nurmi was also entered in the cross-country event and the 3000m team race. He was disappointed that he could not get a chance to go for the 10,000m also, the Finnish authorities deciding to keep him away from further strain, looking at the already tough-looking schedule that he had opted for.

His opponents in Paris in the 1500m seemed to have given up hope well before the event started. Nurmi has this habit of holding his stopwatch in his hand while running. He did that in the Olympics, too, throwing it infield after 1000m. He was through the 400m in 58.0 and 800m in 1:58.5, both awe-inspiring for that period. He slowed down after that and cruised to victory in an Olympic record time of 3:53.6. Willey Scharer of Sweden was second in 3:55.0.

Forty-two minutes later Nurmi lined up for the 5000m, and beat Ville Ritola, another great Finn who was to write his own Olympic chapter later, 14:31.2 (Olympic record) to 14:31.4.

Nurmi won the cross-country in which Finland took the team gold, and was part of the Finnish team that won the 3000m team race. He won the 10,000m in the 1928 Games but could manage only the silver in the 5000m won by Ritola.

Nurmi ended his Olympic journey with nine gold medals and three silvers. Carl Lewis, the great American sprinter-cum-long-jumper, also claimed nine gold medals, but managed just two silvers to be second in the points tally. Ray Ewry of the US is credited with 10 gold medals including two in the interim games in 1906. He won all his gold medals between 1900 and 1908 in discontinued events, standing high jump, standing long jump and standing triple jump.

Even as Nurmi rewrote Olympic Games history, nay athletics history, Briton Harold Abraham was writing a new chapter for European sprinting. In eight editions of the Games till then the Americans had won the short sprint title seven times, the odd one going to South African Reggie Walker.

Abrahams changed that script, becoming the first European to claim the 100m title in the Olympics. He beat favourite Jackson Scholz of the US 10.6 (equal to Olympic record) to 10.7s.

After his death in 1978 Abrahams was featured in the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire with Ben Cross playing the role of the Olympic 100m champion.

The man who stayed away from the 100m since the heats happened to be on a Sunday, also featured in Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell of Britain, competed in the 400m and won. Liddell was third in the 200m behind Scholz and Charlie Paddock, the 100m winner in the previous Games.

Liddell, a Scottish international rugby player, born to evangelistic parents, knew well before he came to Paris that the heats of the 100m would be on a Sunday and, according to athletics historian and journalist Roberto Quercetani of Italy, planned to concentrate on the 200m and 400m.

Liddell clocked a world record 47.6s in winning the 400m, after having timed 49.0 and 48.2 in the two rounds earlier. He was off to a great start in the final timing 22.2 at the 200m mark and had a lead of nearly 10 metres on the straight before American Horatio Fitch (48.4) cut it down. Briton Gary Butler took the bronze in 48.6s.

Ritola won the 10,000m in the absence of Nurmi, in a world record 30:23.2. Not the one to lag behind, Nurmi bettered that mark after the Olympics in a meet in Kuopio, Finland, clocking 30:06.1 (rounded up to 30:06.2 as world record). That record stood for 13 years before being bettered by another Finn, Ilmar Salminen with 30:05.6. Finns continued to have a stranglehold on that event till Czechoslovakia’s Emil Zatopek took over in 1949.

American Harold Osborn had the distinction of winning the shot-put-discus double while Lee Barnes, yet to turn 18, another American became the youngest to win a pole vault gold.

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