London Olympics 2012

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  • London Olympics 2012: Ten things

Marathon moments

Steven Lynch
August 12, 2012
The Spice Girls are expected to close the Olympic Games © Getty Images
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Each day of the Games we will bring ten facts you may or may not know about the great sporting spectacle that is the Olympics. Today we have some marathon moments

For some the highlight of the whole Olympics might come in the closing ceremony, in which the Spice Girls (Spice Ladies now, surely?) are tipped to reunite for the night. The tradition of the athletes breaking ranks and mingling with each other at the closing ceremony was started at Melbourne in 1956, after a suggestion from a local schoolboy.

The competitive highlight of the final day is the men's marathon, which has seen much drama since the very first modern Olympics, in Athens in 1896, when after the host nation had not won any events Greek honour was restored when the first man home in the marathon was Spiridon Louis, a local farmer.

The second Olympic marathon, in Paris in 1900, also went to a local man, Michel Theato (although actually he was born in Luxembourg). Theato won by almost five minutes, and there were suggestions that he had taken a few short-cuts along the way using local knowledge gleaned from his time as a baker's delivery-boy. But these have never been substantiated: what is known is that it was a terribly hot day, and the pre-race favourite Georges Touquet-Daunis stopped for refreshments a few miles into the race. After a beer or two at a convenient hostelry, he decided it was much too hot to continue and stayed put.

In the St Louis Games of 1904 the first man past the post in the marathon was New Yorker Fred Lorz. He accepted the applause and had his photo taken with the president's daughter ... but was then forced to admit that he'd stopped running after nine miles and travelled most of the rest of the way in a car. Gold went instead to Thomas Hicks, resident in America but still the only English-born winner of the Olympic marathon. He had a bit of help, too: he was revived en route by several doses of brandy laced with strychnine.

There was more drama in London in 1908, when the tiny Italian Dorando Pietri collapsed within sight of the finishing line in the White City Stadium. Kindly officials tried to help him over the line, but their assistance meant Pietri was disqualified. John Hayes, who worked for Bloomingdale's department store in New York, inherited the gold medal. Pietri might have been all right if the race (originally scheduled for 26 miles from a start in Windsor Great Park) hadn't been lengthened by 385 yards at the behest of Queen Alexandra, who asked whether the race could begin under the windows of Windsor Castle so the royal children could watch the start. Ever since, the marathon distance has been standardised at 26 miles 385 yards.

Things calmed down a little after these early high jinks, although there were echoes of the 1904 farce in 1972, when the first man into Munich's Olympic Stadium was a local student in running gear who'd joined in shortly before the finishing line. Norbert Sudhaus was soon spotted, and was hustled off the track to catcalls from the crowd - which mystified the real winner, the American Frank Shorter, who thought the boos were aimed at him as he arrived shortly afterwards. Shorter was actually born in Munich, while his father was in the US Army.

The great Czech athlete Emil Zatopek went for a unprecedented treble in Helsinki in 1952, entering his first-ever marathon after winning both the 5000 and 10,000 metres on the track. Zatopek attached himself to the pre-race favourite, Britain's Jim Peters, and asked him around the halfway mark how things were going. "Too slow," said Peters, who was suffering from what had actually been a hot early pace. Zatopek shot off into the distance, and ended up completing a unique treble: Peters later dropped out.

African dominance of the Olympic marathon really started in 1960, when Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila won in Rome. Bikila ran the race barefoot, and just pipped Morocco's Rhadi Ben Abdesselem to the gold. Four years later in Tokyo Bikila - now wearing shoes - won again, more than four ahead of second-placed Basil Heatley from Warwickshire. Britain has won only one marathon medal since - Charlie Spedding's bronze in 1984.

Elsewhere today it's the women's modern pentathlon, which was introduced into the Games in 2000 and memorably won in Sydney by Stephanie Cook, a doctor from Bath. In contrast to the men's event, where they have never won an individual medal, Britain has taken four of the nine awarded so far on the distaff side: apart from Cook's gold, Kate Allenby (2000) and Georgina Harland (2004) won bronze, while Heather Fell took the silver last time in Beijing.

The boxing concludes with five more finals, at flyweight (won by Terry Spinks in 1956), lightweight (gold for Dick McTaggart, also in 1956), welterweight (no British medals since a bronze in 1960), light-heavyweight (won by Harry Mitchell in 1924, and slightly more famously by Muhammad Ali in 1960), and super-heavyweight - won by Lennox Lewis in 1988, Wladimir Klitschko in 1996 ... and Audley Harrison in Sydney in 2000.

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