From the stirring Greek victory in the first Olympic marathon in 1896 to Hicham El Guerrouj’s double-victory in 2004, competitors in distance running events have gained success in a variety of ways. From 800-meter races that end in less than two minutes through the two hour-plus marathon, distance runners have gained glory through combinations of speed, strength and endurance.
1. 1896 - Greek triumphIn the first modern Olympics in 1896 the 40-kilometer-long marathon, more than any other event, captured the imagination of the host Greek nation, whose people hoped passionately for a Greek champion. As the race progressed, many of the 17 competitors overextended themselves and dropped out. At about the 34-kilometer mark Spyridon Louis, a 24-year-old Greek farmer, caught race leader Edwin Flack of Australia, who had won the 880-yard run just the day before. Louis gradually pulled away from Flack, who soon dropped out. When Louis entered the stadium alone, Greek's Prince George and Crown Prince Constantine went down to the track and ran alongside Lewis, escorting him to the finish line in front of 100,000 cheering spectators.
2. 1924 - Flying FinnOn paper, Finland's Paavo Nurmi won the 1500 meters in 1924 by 1.4 seconds. On the track, however, it was a different story. Nurmi, who consulted a stopwatch as he ran, set a fast pace and pulled away. He slowed near the finish to conserve energy for his attempt to win the 5000, which was scheduled to begin less than two hours after the 1500. Nevertheless, his time of 3:53.6 set a then-Olympic record. Finland's Ville Ritola set a blazing pace in the 5000 final, but Nurmi passed him halfway through the race and never lost his lead. Nurmi matched Ritola's strong finish and set another Olympic record (14:31.2). Nurmi became the first runner to win the 1500 and 5000 in the same Olympics, a feat matched by Hicham El Guerrouj in 2004.
3. 1952 - Triple playEmil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia pulled off an unprecedented triple at the 1952 Olympics, winning the 5000, the 10,000 and the marathon. Zatopek began by defending his 10,000 gold and lowering his Olympic record to 29:17.0, winning by approximately 100 yards. In the 5000, Zatopek began the final lap in first place, quickly fell to fourth, then swung wide around turn four and dashed to victory in an Olympic record time of 14:06.6. Zatopek had never run a marathon previously, so he matched the pace of Jim Peters of Great Britain, a pre-race favorite. Zatopek passed Peters before the midpoint of the race, however, and had to run alone. Nevertheless, he went on to set his third Olympic record in a one-week span, with a winning time of 2:23:03.2.
4. 1964 - Mills scores upset in 10,000American Billy Mills shocked the running world with his upset victory in the 10,000 meters in 1964. The unheralded Mills, who finished second in the U.S. Olympic trials, survived a tough final lap against pre-race favorite Ron Clarke of Australia and Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi, another dark horse competitor. The three exchanged the lead throughout the last lap while contending with slower, lapped runners. In the end, Mills' final sprint allowed him to break the tape in a then-Olympic record time of 28:24.4, which was 46 seconds lower than his previous personal best.
5. 2000 - Ngeny nips El GuerroujKenya's Noah Ngeny was once the pacesetter for Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj, but in 2000 the two were the favorites in a highly-competitive 1500 event. Both men won their semifinal heats. El Guerrouj led the final through the last turn, but Ngeny pulled ahead with approximately 25 meters remaining and set the current Olympic record with a time of 3:32.07, beating El Guerrouj by .25 second. El Guerrouj then enjoyed his Olympic breakthrough in 2004, edging Bernard Lagat by .12 in the 1500 (3:34.18), then nipping Kenenisa Bekele in the 5000 by .20 (13:14.39).