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In its history, the marathon has transformed ordinary men through chance and circumstance into heroes and villains, a succession of strange and endearing stories that encapsulate the highs and lows of the Olympic dream.
But the history of the men’s marathon also may have the oddest stories of any sport at the Olympics.
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Established as a tribute to an Ancient Greek legend, the Olympics made the marathon the global participatory sport it is today.
Legend has it the messenger collapsed and died after proclaiming, “We won.” Already it seems strange to commemorate a historic event by reenacting the last run of a dying man.
The first marathon at the inaugural 1896 Olympic Games in Athens retraced that historic route along rough country roads and sweltering temperatures.
Three Greeks crossed the finish line to take the top places—maybe no surprise given that 12 of the 17 runners were Greek and only nine men finished—but a complaint revealed that the third-placed Spiridon Belokas had covered part of the way in a carriage, earning the dubious honor of the first Olympic runner ever disqualified for cheating.
He, too, suffered the extreme physicality of the race and could only get by with his training staff feeding him the stimulant stychinine—also used in rat poison—as well as egg whites and brandy.
Hicks had to be carried across the finish line and treated immediately.