Because of its historical significance to the Greeks, the Olympic marathon is traditionally the last event of the Olympic Games. The marathon is the only event that is rooted in Greek mythology.
According to the myth, in 490 B.C., the messenger Phidippides ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce a Greek victory in the Battle of Marathon. Phidippides then dropped dead from the effort of the run, according to the legend.
Is the story true? No one knows for sure, and there are several versions of the myth available online. However, we do know one thing for sure: several marathon runners have completed the race at the Olympic Games and lived to tell about it. Spyridon Louis, Abebe Bikila and Joan Benoit are three of the most historic.
Spyridon Louis wins first Olympic marathon
Spyridon Louis won the first Olympic marathon event in 1896. It was symbolic for the hometown Greek crowd, as Louis was the only Greek track and field athlete to win gold.
When Louis entered the stadium, the Greek crowd went crazy, and Greek princes Constantine and George jumped from the stands and accompanied Louis on his last lap. Louis finished the race in 2:58.50.
In total, 17 athletes competed in the original marathon: 13 of them were from Greece and four were from other countries.
In 2004, when the Olympic Games returned to Athens, the Olympic Stadium was named in Louis’ honor.
Abebe Bikila runs barefoot
Abebe Bikila is remembered for famously running the marathon barefoot during the 1960 Olympic Games. Bikila, who represented Ethiopia, was added to the team late after an injury to a teammate. Because Bikila was added to the team so late, the shoes provided for him did not fit comfortably. Instead of running the long distance in poor-fitting shoes, Bikila decided to run with no shoes at all.
And not only did Bikila run barefoot, but he won, as well. He crossed the finish line first by more than 500 yards, breaking the Olympic record by more than eight minutes.
Four years later, Bikila again ran the marathon, this time only 40 days after having his appendix removed. Nevertheless, Bikila again won the event, this time breaking the Olympic record by more than four minutes. The second win made him the first athlete ever to defend his Olympic title.
In 1964, Bikila did wear shoes.
Joan Benoit wins the inaugural women’s marathon
The first women’s marathon was not run in the Olympic Games until 1984. That year, Joan Benoit became the first woman to ever win the marathon at the Olympic Games.
But it wasn’t an easy road for Benoit. In fact, there was concern that she wouldn’t even earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Just 17 days before the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Benoit had to have arthroscopic surgery after injured her knee on a training run.
She recovered quickly, however, and won the Women’s Marathon Olympic Trials by more than 30 seconds. She then went on to earn gold at the Olympic Games, finishing ahead of Grete Waitz and Rosa Mota with a time of 2:2452. She still holds the fastest time by an American in the Olympic Games.
In 1985, Benoit was awarded the James E. Sullivan Award, which is given to the best American amateur athlete. Other Sullivan Award winners include swimmer Michael Phelps and football player Peyton Manning.