In Marathon, Colonel Papadiamantopoulos gave the starting signal for the small field, consisting of thirteen athletes from Greece and four from other nations. The early leader of the race, which led over dusty dirt roads along which throngs of Greeks had gathered to watch, was the Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux, who had earlier placed third in the 1500 metres. In the town of Pikermi, Louis made a stop at a local inn to drink a glass of wine. (Louis’ grandson, also Spiridon Louis, said that this is incorrect; that his grandfather’s girlfriend gave him half an orange and shortly afterwards he “got a glass of cognac from his future father in law.”[2]) After asking for the advantage of the other runners, he confidently declared he would overtake them all before the end.
After 32 km, Lermusiaux was exhausted and abandoned the race. The lead was taken over by Edwin Flack, an Australian who won the 800 and 1500 m races. Louis slowly closed in on Flack. The Australian, not used to running long distances, collapsed a few kilometers onwards, giving Louis the lead.
In the stadium, the atmosphere was tense, especially after a cyclist brought the news that the Australian was in the lead. But another messenger was sent out by the police as soon as Louis moved into the lead, and as the word spread that it was a Greek that led the race, the cry “Hellene, Hellene!” was taken up by thousands of rapturous spectators. When Louis 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. Louis’s victory set off wild celebrations, as described in the official report of the Games:
Here the Olympic Victor was received with full honour; the King rose from his seat and congratulated him most warmly on his success. Some of the King’s aides-de-camp, and several members of the Committee went so far as to kiss and embrace the victor, who finally was carried in triumph to the retiring room under the vaulted entrance. The scene witnessed then inside the Stadion cannot be easily described, and even foreigners were carried away by the general enthusiasm.
Reportedly, the king offered Louis any gift he would care to ask of him, and all Louis could think of was a donkey-drawn carriage to help him in his water-carrying business.
Adding to the celebrations, two more Greek runners entered the stadium to finish in second and third place. Third place finisher Spiridon Belokas was later found to have covered part of the course by carriage and was disqualified; his place was taken by the Hungarian Gyula Kellner.
After his victory, Louis received gifts from many countrymen, ranging from jewelry to a lifelong free shave at the barber shop. It is unknown if Louis took all these gifts, although he did take back home the carriage he had asked of the king. He retreated to his hometown, never again competing in running. He lived a quiet life, working as a farmer, and later as a local police officer.
Forty years after his marathon gold, four years before his death, Louis recalled the moments after his victory: “That hour was something unimaginable and it still appears to me in my memory like a dream … Twigs and flowers were raining down on me. Everybody was calling out my name and throwing their hats in the air …”[3]