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Great Moments in the Summer Olympics
By Christopher, Matt
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Christopher, Matt
All right reserved.
In the early fall of 490 BC, Persia invaded the Greek town of Marathon. A Persian victory seemed certain, for the Persian soldiers outnumbered the Greeks almost three to one. The invaders would then have a clear shot at Athens, the heart of the Greek civilization. If Athens fell, Greece itself would likely fall.
Against all odds, the Greeks won the Battle of Marathon. A messenger called Pheidippides (also known as Philippides) was ordered to Athens to proclaim the victory. Legend has it that he ran the entire way, a distance of more than forty kilometers. When he reached the city, he announced the good news, and then collapsed and died. From that event, we get the word marathon, a race of forty kilometers, or about twenty-five miles. (The distance of the marathon was changed to 26.2 miles in 1908 for the Olympic Games in London, England.)
This long-distance race would later become the highlight of the 1896 Games in Athens, Greece. On April 10, seventeen runners took off toward Athens from Marathon, retracing Pheidippides’s route. Few had ever run so far. Their inexperience soon showed. One by one, they dropped out, too exhausted to continue. Finally, only a handful remained.
Throughout the race, messengers updated spectators in the stadium of the racers’ progress. Soon after the thirty-kilometer mark, they announced that an Australian had the lead. A wave of disappointment rippled through the stands. The Greeks had hoped that one of their countrymen might win the historic event.
Then a man on horseback galloped into the stadium. He rode straight for the royal box, where he informed Greece’s King George and his family that a Greek was now the front-runner!
Excitement surged throughout the stadium when a twenty-four-year-old Greek shepherd named Spiridon Louis entered the arena; not even the royals were able to contain their joy. Crown Prince Constantine and his brother George flanked Louis to the finish line. Two hours, fifty-eight minutes, and fifty seconds after his start, Louis crossed that line—and into the history books as the first winner of the Olympic marathon.
The 1896 marathon had proved that not every runner was up to the challenge of such a long-distance race. An Italian athlete hammered home that fact at the 1908 London Games.
Dorando Pietri was the first runner to enter the stadium that year. The finish line was a mere 385 yards away. But instead of dashing across to victory, Pietri staggered in the wrong direction. Then he collapsed. For a long minute, no one knew what to do. If track officials helped him, he’d be disqualified. So they decided to see whether he could finish under his own power.
Somehow, Pietri got back on his feet, only to collapse again. This agonizing scene played out four more times before officials intervened and half carried the exhausted runner over the finish line. Their aid helped Pietri finish the race (and may have saved his life), but it cost him the gold medal.
Long-distance runners typically train for many months to prepare for the grueling challenge of a marathon. But every so often, there comes an athlete who just seems born to run. At the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Finland, that athlete was Emil Zatopek from Czechoslovakia.
Zatopek had an unusual running style that made him look as if he were in extreme pain. “I was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time,” he once joked. At the 1948 London Games, that running style earned him an Olympic record in the 10,000-meter race with a time of twenty-nine minutes and 59.6 seconds (29:59.6). He also took home a silver medal in the 5,000-meter race.
Four years later, he broke his own record in the 10,000-meter by improving his time to 29:17.0 and then also broke the 5,000-meter record. With two gold medals to his credit already, he made an unbelievable last-minute decision to enter the marathon—despite never having run one before!
Zatopek later joked that he had entered the race because his wife, Dana Ingrova Zatopkova, had just won a gold medal in the javelin throw—making them the first husband-wife Olympic gold medalists—and he wanted to outdo her three golds to one. Whether that was true or not, he accomplished his goal. He breezed through the marathon with effortless grace. While other runners withdrew from exhaustion, he chatted with bike messengers and spectators along the route. He not only won the race but also set his third Olympic record of 1952 with a time of two hours, twenty-three minutes, and 3.2 seconds (2:23:03.2). He was the first person to take gold in the 5,000-meter, 10,000-meter, and marathon races in a single Olympic Games.
Eight years after Zatopek’s historic marathon, all eyes were on an Ethiopian runner who approached the race in a new way—barefoot! Abebe Bikila was not favored to win the 1960 event in Rome, Italy, but he had a secret plan.
Not far from the finish line, the race route took runners past the ancient obelisk of Axum, a tall granite pillar that had been stolen from Ethiopia during World War II. Bikila thought the plundered landmark would be a fitting place for a burst of speed. So when he reached the obelisk, he stepped up his pace and took the lead. He won the marathon with a world best time of 2:15:16.2 and also entered the history books as the first black African to win a gold medal.
Amazingly, Bikila—now wearing running shoes—beat his own record at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, Japan. His time was 2:12:11.2, earning him a place in Olympic history as the first person to win back-to-back marathons. As a reward for his efforts, his government gave him a car. Five years later, he was behind the wheel of that same car when tragedy struck. He crashed, breaking his neck and severing his spinal cord. Fortunately he survived the accident, but he was paralyzed from the waist down for the remainder of his life.
The field of marathon runners has grown significantly since Spiridon Louis’s time. By 1992, 112 athletes from seventy-two nations lined up at the start in Barcelona, Spain. Among them were Hwang Young-Cho from South Korea and Koichi Morishita from Japan. Throughout the last section of the race, the two ran neck-and-neck. Then, at the final two-kilometer mark, Young-Cho sped up just enough to take the lead for good. He crossed the finish line with a time of 2:13:23 and then buckled to his knees. He was too tired to take the traditional victory lap, but his wide smile let everyone know how happy he was.
Among those watching was fellow marathon winner and countryman Sohn Kee-Chung. Kee-Chung won the demanding race in 1936. At that time, Korea was occupied by Japan, so Kee-Chung was forced to compete under the Japanese flag. Now, more than five decades later, he beamed with pride as the South Korean flag flew in Young-Cho’s honor.
To date, no Olympian has broken the two-hour mark, although at the 2008 Games in Beijing, China, Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya came close with a time of 2:06:32. That was a new Olympic record, better by nearly three minutes than the previous time set by Carlos Lopes at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, California.
Lopes was not the only marathon winner at the Games that year. For the first time, women competed in a marathon of their own. Before 1984, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) considered women too fragile for the grueling race—even though female runners had covered the distance many times before. In fact, some believe that in 1896, two Greek women ran the course.
Nearly a century later, the inaugural women’s marathon was held. It wasn’t much of a competition, however. The winner, American Joan Benoit, established an early lead and then cruised to victory virtually unchallenged. Her time of 2:24:52 held until 2000, when the current Olympic-record holder, Japan’s Naoko Takahashi, finished the race in 2:23:14.
Spiridon Louis once said that winning the marathon was “something unimaginable… like a dream.” Regardless of whether women or men run that race, one thing is certain: The longest distance event in the Olympics has provided decades of inspiring stories of athletes who pushed themselves to their greatest limit.
Men’s Short-Distance Races
What would it be like to be the fastest runner in the world? In 1936, American Jesse Owens found out.
The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany, under the watchful eye of Adolf Hitler. In the years before these Games, Hitler had used a potent combination of military might, brutality, and intense propaganda to gain power and promote his Nazi agenda. A big piece of Hitler’s agenda was to define which kinds of people were “good” and which were “bad.” According to Hitler, good people were of the Aryan race—that is, blond, blue-eyed Christians. The list of “bad” people included Jews, blacks, and homosexuals—basically anyone Hitler felt threatened his vision of a powerful, racially pure German state.
Hitler realized the Games could be the perfect showcase for his Aryan agenda. He believed that his athletes would emerge victorious over all other competitors and would prove the superiority of their race.
Things did not go according to Hitler’s plan, however. Jesse Owens, a twenty-two-year-old African American, completely debunked Hitler’s claim that blacks were physically inferior by turning in the best track and field performance of any athlete at the time.
Owens had just missed making the U.S. Olympic team in 1932, but in 1936 he emerged as its star. He blew away the other runners in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.3 seconds. He captured another gold medal and set an Olympic record in the 200-meter final two days later, crossing the finish line in 20.7 seconds. In between, he leaped to an Olympic record in the long jump, a distance of 8.06 meters (26.4 feet). His long jump success was even more remarkable because he nearly didn’t qualify for the event!
Owens, like all the long jumpers, had three attempts to qualify. He fouled on the first two when his foot touched the takeoff line. One more mistake and he would have been eliminated.
Help came from an unexpected source, a German long jumper named Luz Long. Long was the very image of Aryanism—blond, blue-eyed, and in peak physical condition. He was the perfect example for Hitler’s agenda, but he didn’t believe in Hitler’s values. When he saw Owens having trouble, he offered to put his towel on the ground a foot in front of the line. Long suggested that if Owens jumped from there, he wouldn’t foul. Owens took Long up on his offer, qualified with ease, and later jumped to gold. A true sportsman, Long was the first person to congratulate Owens.
“We walked arm-in-arm right in front of Hitler’s box. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace,” Owens once said.
In the second week of the Games, Owens earned his fourth gold medal as a controversial substitute on the 4×100-meter relay team. The original foursome included two Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller. Shortly before the final, the U.S. coaches abruptly replaced Glickman and Stoller with Owens and teammate Ralph Metcalfe. While no one knows for sure why they made the switches, most believe they bowed to pressure from the Nazi organizers. Owens’s protests on his teammates’ behalf fell on deaf ears. He ran the first leg of the race, giving his team such a large lead that they won by more than thirteen meters.
Before Jesse Owens’s great triumphs, there had been other amazing sprinters, too. In 1900, American Alvin Kraenzlein tore up sixty meters of track in 7 seconds. His world record stands today because the 60-meter event was cut from the Olympics after the 1904 Games.
Two decades later, at the 1924 Games in Paris, France, Harold Abrahams of Great Britain perfected his stride by laying pieces of paper on the ground where he wanted his feet to fall. He knew he had hit the marks when his spikes picked up the papers. His training paid off, for in the 100-meter dash he equaled the Olympic record of 10.6 seconds to win gold.
That same year, Abrahams’s teammate Eric Liddell astonished the crowd by running the second half of the 400-meter race at such a fast pace that his competitors were literally stumbling to keep up.
“I don’t like to be beaten,” Liddell once said of his performance. His and Abrahams’s Olympic stories were later turned into an Oscar-winning movie, Chariots of Fire, and although the film didn’t get all the facts right, it did inspire many future runners.
Another pair of sprinters provided a different kind of inspiration at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico. In the 200-meter race, American Tommie Smith broke the tape with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds. His teammate John Carlos crossed .27 seconds later, good enough for the bronze. Their races were impressive, but it was what they did during the medal ceremony that left a lasting impression.
Excerpted from Great Moments in the Summer Olympics by Christopher, Matt Copyright © 2012 by Christopher, Matt. Excerpted by permission.
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