νικωμεν’ (We've won!)
The Olympic marathon was inspired by the improbable feat of Philippides, the dispatch-runner who carried news of the Greek victory from the battlefield near Marathon to Athens over 37-38 km (23 miles) of rocky mountainous terrain. "Joy to you, we've won!" he gasped as he reached the city gates, and died then and there, his last word being a sighing "Joy"; and off he went, a hero, to the Elysian Fields.
On April 10 (March 29 according to the calendar then used in Greece), thirteen Greek and four foreign runners set out from Marathon to match this legendary run. Only nine of the seventeen men completed the distance, the others collapsed one after another along the brutal course. The winner was a Greek named Spiridon Loues, a poor water-carrier by trade, whose commanding officer in military service had convinced him to join the race. Thousands of rapturous spectators watched him cross the finish line:
When Loues finally arrived in a stadium erupting with joy, two Greek princes – Crown Prince Constantine and Prince George – rushed to meet him and accompanied him on his final lap for a finishing time of 2:58:50, fuelled along the way by wine, milk, beer, an Easter egg, and some orange juice.When Life Gives You Lemons instead...
The first modern Olympics, needless to say, did not have any women athletes. The founder of the IOC, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, always said that a "female Olympiad would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect." In this, he received the full support of Pope Pius XI, who seriously condemned the playing of sport by women.** Quite right too. A woman’s natural sporting achievement was to encourage her sons to be distinguished in sports and to applaud a man’s effort. So, the lovely lady holding the victor's wreath in the Olympic poster (top left) was meant to be the limit of female activity at the Games.
In spite of Coubertin’s efforts to keep out the gentler sex, an unofficial female competitor ran in the 1896 marathon, a poor Greek woman who became known as ‘Melpomene’, the Muse of Tragedy, whose real name was Stamati Revithi.
The supplement Les Jeux Olympiques of the Messager d’Athenes between 8 February and 18 April 1896 contained many references to the preparations and to the Olympic Games themselves. On 14 March under the heading, "A woman in the Marathon," it reads:
There was talk of a woman who had enrolled as a participant in the Marathon race. In the test run which she completed on her own on Thursday, she took 4½ hours to run the distance of 42 kilometres which separates Marathon from Athens. She stopped for about ten minutes half-way only to suck a few oranges. She is a woman of the people with marked features, of a tough and lively temperament.She was not allowed to compete in the men’s race (registration was closed, they said), but would run by herself the next day.
The Estia newspaper of Saturday, 23 March 1896, also refers to "the runner Mrs Revithi, the strange woman. who, having run a few days ago in the Marathon as a try-out intends to compete the day after tomorrow. Today she came to our offices and said ‘Should my shoes hinder me, I will remove them on the way and continue barefoot.'"
Revithi arrived at the the small village of Marathon on Thursday, 9 April [28 March], where the athletes had already assembled for the following day's race. She attracted the attention of the reporters and was warmly greeted by Marathon's mayor, who sheltered her in his house. She answered the reporters' questions and was quick-witted when a male runner teased her, predicting that when she entered the Stadium, there would be no crowds left. Revithi retorted that he should not insult women, since male Greek athletes had already been humiliated by the Americans. In fact, Americans had won gold medals in nine of the twelve athletics events during the previous days.
On the morning of Friday, 29 March 1896, Stamata Revithi asked the old priest of Marathon to read a prayer for her so that she would quickly reach the Stadium. The priest replied that he would be saying a prayer in the Church of Saint John, but only for the 'official athletes'. The organizing committee backed him up, having refused her permission to enter the race and thus, presumably, not having a prayer.
Nonetheless, on Saturday, 30 March 1896 at 8:00 a.m., Stamata Revithi was ready to run the marathon alone. Before setting off, she recorded the time at which she started and this document was signed by the school master, the mayor and the magistrate of Marathon. When the starter's gun sounded, she began to run along the side of the course. Eventually she fell behind the men, but as she continued on, she passed runners who dropped out of the race in exhaustion. Having run the entire route at a brisk pace she arrived at the stadium, perspiring and covered in dust, about an hour and a half after Spiridon Loues won the race. Barred from entry into the now empty stadium, she ran her final lap around the outside of the building, finishing in either 4½ or 5½ hours (reports differ).
After her marathon run, athletics officials could not remember her name so they labeled her ‘Melpomene’, who is the Greek muse of Tragedy. Looking at Stamata Revithi, they could see only tragedy, not her extraordinary feat. She had finished approximately two hours after the winner and had beaten some of her male competitors.
There is no account of Revithi's life following the marathon. The poor woman who hoped to get some fame or money from her run disappeared entirely. She was truly "lost in the dust of history."
The French athlete, Marie-Louise Ledru is credited with being the first woman to race the modern marathon distance of 42.195 km (25 miles): on September 29, 1918, Ledru reportedly completed the Tour de Paris Marathon with a time of 5 hours and 40 minutes. Violet Piercy of the United Kingdom was the first woman to complete an official marathon: on 3 October 1926, she clocked a time of 3:40 hours in a British race. Women were finally allowed to run the Olympic marathon at the 1984 Summer Games, when American Joan Benoit won the inaugural race in a time of 2:24.52 hours.***
The women's marathon at London 2012 begins at 11 AM on Sunday, 5 August. If you're watching, spare a thought for Stamata Revithi.
Did she ever really exist? I don't know. The stories and witnesses cited seem rather dodgy and contradictory. But she should have had her run and I hope she did.
* This week, to give it epic scale, over 10,000 athletes from 205 countries will be competing at the London Olympics.
** Pius XI finds a like-minded contemporary in Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Shathri, Saudi cleric and author of Girls' Sports and Scouting in Schools and Universities (2010), who warns that athletics "orient women toward a masculine physique, as their pelvis shrinks into the size of a male pelvis and their shoulders broaden." Despite this evident danger, Saudi Arabia is fielding two female athletes at London 2012 who will run, fully wrapped up and veiled. See 'Two Steps Forward...'
*** Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain holds the current women's world record for the marathon which she set during the 2003 London Marathon with a time of 2:15:25.
Sources include L.P. DaCosta, Olympic Studies: Current Intellectual Crossroads, Ch. 15; 'Stamata Revithi ran the marathon in 1896 Olympics' at the The pink elephant; Charlie Lovett, 'The Fight to Establish the Women's Race' at Marathan Guide.com; Athanasios Tarasouleas, 'The Female Spiridon Loues' Karl Lennartz, 'Two Women Ran the Marathon in 1896'; Stamata Revithi at Wikipedia; V.J.Matthews, 'The "Hemerodromoi": Ultra Long-Distance Running in Antiquity', CW 1974, 161-69, who notes that the modern marathon distance of 26 miles 385 yards was set at the 1908 Olympics in order to finish the race in front of the royal box; for no better reason, this is the distance that has become standard for the race.
Top left: Official poster of the Athens Olympics, 1896.
Upper left: Spiridon Loues entering the Panathinaiko Stadium at the end of the marathon. Photo via The pink elephant online magazine
Lower left: Entirely fanciful drawing of Stamata Revithi by Athanasios Tarasouleas at STAMATA REVITHI, ALIAS “MELPOMENI"
Lower left: Watch marathon 2012 Olympics.