A trip down memory lane

ATHENS, AUG. 14. When Spyridon Louis talks about Spyridon Louis, as is often the case these days, he does so with pride and respect and a portion of love.

Memories are rekindled and all kinds of anecdotes are told. His grandfather's grand feat dates back 108 years. Unfortunately, he died 16 days before his same-named grandson was born in 1940.

In Greece, the first marathon winner of the modern era is a legend and is highly revered as a hero, so much so that he was honoured with a special grave in 1955.

`Little Spyros' is now a 64-year-old retired engineer and defends his grandfather's name at every turn.

"I know that he was an unselfish man of strong character. But he was very headstrong. Apart from that, he had endurance — maybe that was why he won the marathon in 1896," Spyridon `Spyros' Louis told DPA in an interview in Athens.

"I live in my grandfather's shadow and I'm delighted that Greek and foreign media have contacted me." But what he did not say is that the interest is huge and is becoming stressful.

But when it is a question of grandfather Spyros, then patience would seem to have become almost an Olympic discipline for the grandson. He has never accepted a Drachma or Euro in payment.

"I would never tarnish my grandfather's memory by profiting materially from his story," he said.

A fantastic tale

Spyros Louis, a water bearer from the Athenian suburb of Maroussil and hardened from cross-country runs, was the surprise Olympic winner on April 10, 1896. His story is fantastic.

Five days before the race, the 23-year-old had to compete in a qualifying race, which was his first ever marathon. Spyros Louis won his second in a World record time of 2h58m50s, an incredible feat for a man of simple means, and given the time he had to prepare it seems it's totally inconceivable today.

Louis received a silver medal and a silver cup. The priceless piece takes pride of place in Greece.

"The medal is in the Olympic Stadium and bears his name. Whoever wants to see it, has to have special permission." The medal of course cannot be touched.

Spyridon Louis led the Greek team at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and during the opening ceremony presented Hitler with an olive branch from Olympia.

When he died on March 26, 1940, church bells rang all day in the town of Maroussi. Apart from Spiros and another grandson, Nicolas, five great-grandchildren of the famed Olympian are still alive. None of the surviving Louis family has ever again competed in a marathon and the anecdotes are handed down from generation to generation.

Spyros II has not forgotten what his father told him. "The story of the massage is still the funniest," he said. After his heroic feat, an official in Panathenian Stadium forced his grandfather to stretch his legs and let himself be massaged.

But the water bearer had never even heard of massage and his arms were unused to it. "A disgrace! Don't touch me!" he yelled followed by a "Let me out of here. I want to go home and celebrate with my friends." — DPA

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