Marathon hero’s kin to end run

The Olympic Flame’s first round-the-world journey promises to be a showcase of stars. Australia’s 400-meter champion, Cathy Freeman, will be the first torchbearer next Friday in Sydney as the flame begins the six-continent trip. The celebrity list goes on: Soccer deity Pele, sprinter Carl Lewis, basketball great Magic Johnson, 4-minute-mile pioneer Roger Bannister, actress Angelina Jolie. And Manolis Louis. Manolis who? For the Olympic hosts, the 27-year-old car salesman may represent one of the most poignant legs of the 75,300-kilometer (46,761-mile) relay. His great-grandfather, the winner of the 1896 marathon, was Greece’s first modern Olympic hero. But he fell into poverty and obscurity before regaining fame in a nation that exalts the underdog. Organizers plan for Louis to be among the last to carry the torch before the Opening Ceremony on August 13. Each runner travels no more than 500 meters. But Louis’s brief time with the flame should swell with symbolism. For Greeks, it will represent blood ties to the revival of the Games. Maroussi, the suburb encompassing the main stadium, will bolster its Olympic credentials through a native son. Everyone else can use the moment to reflect on how much has changed since the shepherd Spyridon Louis – gulping wine for stamina – broke away from the 16 other runners in the first Olympic marathon. «It’s definitely a great honor for both the Louis family and Maroussi,» Manolis Louis said. Like many sports legends, the accounts of Spyridon Louis’s triumph are a hybrid of fact, embellishment and perhaps outright fabrication. No one seems to mind. The tale is better for the telling. When Spyridon Louis was born in about 1873, Maroussi was a village separated from Athens by kilometers of fields and olive groves. He made a living caring for sheep and selling water – sometimes making the 10-kilometer trip to Athens twice a day, so they say. He apparently had no athletic aspirations, but was nominated for the marathon after dashing off in record time to retrieve the eyeglasses of a military officer, the story goes. A more romantic version is that he accepted the offer to run to impress the woman he loved and gain the acceptance of her family, who were reluctant to let her marry a second-generation water carrier. The first Olympic marathoners, each wearing white cotton trunks and tops, slogged through mud and rutted roads in the early stages. Louis stayed close to the leaders. One by one, they fell back. Around the 35th kilometer, an Australian accountant named Edwin Flack stumbled. Louis was alone with a comfortable lead. «It’s a Greek! It’s a Greek!» the crowd roared as Louis entered central Athens, according to newspaper reports. Spectators pulled out guns and fired in the air. Louis strode into the horseshoe-shaped marble stadium and crossed the line in 2 hours, 58 minutes, 50 seconds – astonishing then but more than 54 minutes off the current record. There were no sponsors to satisfy or agents to seek deals. Fans came forward with unsolicited generosity – cash, a sewing machine, free haircuts. The Greek king, however, asked Louis what he wanted. Louis had just one request: a horse, so he wouldn’t have to tote the water himself anymore. He also won the approval of his beloved’s family, according to some accounts. They were soon married and he returned to a life barely altered by his feat and prizes. «Once the lights of the festival had faded, one week later he went back to his field with his hoe,» said Louis’s grandson and namesake, 63-year-old Spyros, a retired mechanic. «He had no need of anyone or any honor… He ran for an ideal.» The renown did not last. Greece slipped deeper into hardship and regional conflicts. There was little time for aging champions. In 1915, a reporter visited Louis and was shocked to find a destitute man whose clothes were «full of dust and spiders.» About a decade later, Louis was jailed – and later acquitted – on charges of forging military discharge papers. «In ancient Greece they would tear down the walls to greet Olympic champions,» Louis was quoted as saying. «Now, they put them in jail.» He did have one last brush with the Olympics – at the invitation of Adolf Hitler, who offered to pay his train fare to the 1936 Berlin Games. Frail and sickly, Louis entered the stadium wearing a traditional Greek pleated skirt and shoes tipped by pompoms. He presented Hitler an olive branch from Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Games. Louis died in 1940 with Greece about to be drawn into yet another war. His rural Maroussi is also gone. It’s now an extension of Athens’s sea of apartment blocks and offices. One of the few landmarks he would recognize is the marble stadium where the first Olympic marathon ended – and also the finish at this summer’s Games. But there will be no wild and free-flowing celebrations for the victor. That belongs to another era. The stadium will be watched over by police, security cameras and helicopters. That’s not the only thing separating Louis’s age from ours. He ran his triumphant race in shoes donated by neighbors. Now, his last name is on an Air Zoom model by the athletic shoe giant Nike – which means victory in Greek.