21 July 2012

Greek Olympics, Greek marathon runner (1896)

Spyros Louis (1873–1940) was born into an Athens family where the only income came from selling clean drinking water. Eager to help out his dad, young Spyros must have been used to running long distances, carrying his water bottles.

Spyros Louis, with a handsome handlebar moustache

That a Greek athlete should win the first modern-day Olympic marathon at the 1896 Summer Olympics was the stuff of legend. And the story is very Greek! Spyros Louis went to his church and prayed to the Virgin for succ­ess, promising her, if he won the cup, to leave it in the church as a thank offering, and a perpetual reminder of his gratitude.

Historically it was right that a Greek athlete should win the modern marathon. After all, the original marathon occurred in 490 BC when Phidippides was supposed to have run down from the plain of Marathon to Athens, telling Athenians that the Persians had been defeated. Apparently 80,000 Greek spectators were beyond delighted when one of their own won at the 1896 games, the only event the Greeks won that year. Crown Prince Constantine and Prince George rushed towards the athlete, put their arms around the victor’s exhausted body and helped him into the dressing-room in the tunnel.

Spyros Louis was presented with a beautiful silver cup engraved in Greek, a silver medal, an antique vase, an olive branch and a diploma by Greece's King George I for his Athens victory. Needless to say, Spyros Louis was turned into a national hero; honours and gifts were heaped on him, daughters were offered to him in marriage and later the modern Olympic stadium in Athens was named after him. That he was a very handsome man in his early 20s did nothing to damage his newly acquired fame.

But it is the Michel Bréal Cup, named after the Frenchman who wanted a marathon at the first of the modern Games, that I am most interest­ed in. This cup, only 15 cm high, was given to Christie’s in London by the winner’s grandson and was sold at a London auction just three months before the 2012 Summer Games in London. Christie’s also offered other 179 items in the same sale, including eight original Olympic torches dating from 1936-96 and 26 original posters advertising Olympic Games between 1908-64.

Michel Bréal Cup, won by Spyros Louis
Olympic Games, Athens, 1896

I suppose the Greek economy has been at its lowest ebb recently and the chan­ces of the cup staying in Greece were remote. Yet a Greek charitable organisation, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, outbid everyone and successfully won the auction. The £541,250 paid for the cup set a huge world record for a piece of Olympic memorabilia. At least now the Breal Cup will be returned to Greece and will go on public display.

Should I add a paragraph on what happened to Spyros Louis' last moment of fame? In 1936 he was invited to be a guest of honour at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. After carrying the Greek team's flag during the opening ceremony, he had a personal audience with Adolf Hitler. Presumably Louis offered the German dictator an olive branch of peace from Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, in good faith.


the foto fanatic said...

As a sports tragic I claim knowledge of all sorts of Olympic trivia, but I didn't know that the 1896 Athens marathon was won by a Greek runner.

Thanks for the story Hela!

Parnassus said...

Is there a segment of this story missing? Did he give the cup to the church, or keep it in the family?

Also, was the cup repaired? The stem section looks different, and doesn't seem to fit into the base, although it is hard to tell from the small photo.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...

Foto fanatic

This is actually quite a tragic story, involving long gaol time, mistaken evidence from the police, financial struggle etc.

Poor Spyros. Fame and glory are sometimes fleeting.

Hels said...


I am writing this from Spain, so I cannot check the Christie's records, but I know the family treasured the cup for decades. They only sold it because of the family's current financial crisis.

Go Greece! said...

Of all the cities in the world, it may be true that Melbourne once had the third biggest number of citizens born in Greece. I hope Greece does well in London next week.

Joseph said...

Go Greece!

300,000 Greeks emigrated to Melbourne between 1955-1975. This is bigger than any other Greek city, except for Athens and Salonika. No wonder so many Melbourne people would love Greece to do well in London.