MIke Rowbottom ©ITG

This week - April 6 to be precise - marked the 120th anniversary of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens. This Monday - April 11 - will mark the 120th anniversary of The Spectator’s conclusion that “It is impossible to get honestly interested in the revival of the Olympic Games.”

The Games were about as popular with our acidic columnist as they had been with Theodosius I, the noted Christian Emperor who banned the ancient version in AD393 as part of a purge on pagan ceremonies.

The Spectator review of the 1896 Olympics continued: “They are not contested in the old place, but in Athens, or in the old way, but among representatives of outsiders whom Hellenes would have contemptuously styled barbarians, or in the old spirit, for the last thing the spectators are thinking of is the comparative beauty of the combatants or the effect of their training upon the beauty of the race.”

This, one must allow, was an eloquent hatchet job on what was characterised as “little more than an ordinary international contest of athletes.” And yet this contest contained a number of extraordinary elements that could not have been known at the time by this underwhelmed critic.

Which brings us to Edwin aka “Teddy” Flack.

he silver medals on offer to winners at the first modern Olympics in Athens, 120 years ago. Edwin Flack collected a pair of them and might almost have had a third...
The silver medals on offer to winners at the first modern Olympics in Athens, 120 years ago. Edwin Flack collected a pair of them and might almost have had a third... ©Getty Images

At those first Athens Games this 22-year-old London-born accountant became the first Olympian to represent his naturalised country of Australia. He also became the first in a short list of those who have won men's Olympic 800 and 1500 metres titles in the same year, being followed by America's James Lightbody at St Louis 1904 and Melvin Sheppard at London 1908, Britain's Albert Hill at Antwerp 1920 and New Zealand's Peter Snell at Tokyo 1964. Since the addition of the 1500m to the women's Olympic programme in 1972 the same double has been achieved by Tatyana Kazankina of the Soviet Union at the 1976 Montreal Games, Svetlana Masterkova of Russia at the 1996 Atlanta Games and, at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Britain's Kelly Holmes.

Flack, who took a month off from his job at Price, Waterhouse and Company in London to compete in Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s realised vision of an event, was a decent athlete, having won the 800 and 1500m titles in his home state of Victoria two years beforehand. But he was not of the top rank of internationals, almost all of whom were absent from these inaugural Games. As The Sunday Times wrote in a leader column, “the prizes were not attractive enough to draw our champions.”

That said, the exuberant Flack drew every conceivable competitive experience from the Games, ranging from triumph to defeat to near disaster. His journey to Athens was memorable enough, involving as it did six days of travel by train and boat, and much seasickness. 

Not only did Flack win two silvers – these, not gold medals, were awarded to the 1896 winners, with nothing on offer for second or third place (where were you, David Coleman?...) - he also came within eight kilometres of the Olympic marathon title before running himself to a delirious standstill. And he also had a crack at the tennis.

Flack’s Games began with the 1500m, in which he outsprinted Arthur Blake of the United States to win in 4min 33.2sec.

Two days later he held off Nandor Dani of Hungary to win the 800m title in 2:11.0. He had warmed up for the afternoon’s final by taking part that morning in the men’s doubles tennis, where he and his British partner George Stuart Robertson, having received a bye into the semi-finals, lost to Dionysios Kasdaglis of Egypt and Demetrios Petrokokkinos of Greece.

While at New College in Oxford two years earlier, Robertson had won the Gaisford Prize for Greek Verse and a Blue for hammer throwing. He had arrived in Athens ready to demonstrate his gifts in both arenas, only to discover that his discipline was not included in the Games' athletics programme.

The 1896 Panathenaic Olympic stadium, where Edwin Flack won the 800 and 1500m titles ©Getty Images
The 1896 Panathenaic Olympic stadium, where Edwin Flack won the 800 and 1500m titles ©Getty Images

Instead, he had a bash at two unfamiliar events, the shot put and the discus. His efforts in the former event are not recorded. In the latter, he was fourth and last. His efforts in the men’s singles tennis also came to naught as he was beaten in the first round by home player Konstantinos Paspatis.

But the artistic element to Robertson’s Olympic Games proved a triumph as he produced an outstanding performance in the ceremony which followed the Games, reciting an ode to athletic prowess which he had composed in Ancient Greek.

While Robertson switched into lyric mode following the tennis exit, his partner rushed off for his appointment on the track. And just two hours after he had fulfilled it, he was on the long, dusty prosaic road to Marathon along with his 16 fellow competitors for the following day’s eponymous race.

Flack was one of four foreign runners in the field, the others being the two men who had followed him home in the 1500m, Blake and Albin Lermusiaux of France, along with Hungary’s Gyula Kellner.

The latter was the only one of the quartet to have run such a distance before, having won a 40 kilometres trial. The furthest Flack had run before was 10 miles.

According to an interview conducted 30 years after the event with the eventual winner, Greece’s Spyridon Louis, all the runners were offered food and wine by the Mayor once they got to the inn where they were to stay overnight.

“What did we know about the rules of training and proper diet?” Louis said. “We sang and ate and laughed and ate until late in the evening.”

Spyridon Louis, who won the first Olympic marathon title for Greece in Athens, passing a delirious and pugnacious Flack with around five miles to go ©Getty Images
Spyridon Louis, who won the first Olympic marathon title for Greece in Athens, passing a delirious and pugnacious Flack with around five miles to go ©Getty Images

Next morning, at 11, milk was served and each runner was given two beers, Three hours later, in shivering cold, they set off.

As you might expect, the 1500m runners overdid the early pace.

Lermusiaux led to 30km, having been crowned with a winner’s wreath while passing through village of Palini. At that point he was passed by Flack, and dropped out two kilometres later.

For a few minutes it looked as if the holidaying Aussie was going to secure a third Olympic title, but at 34km the slight, swift figure of Louis appeared at his shoulder before moving onwards to his historic home victory.

After 37 km Flack began to weave and sway in the rising heat, and his companion, V W Delves-Broughton, asked a nearby Greek to stop him from falling over while he rushed to fetch a wrap. In his delirium, Flack thought was being attacked and smashed his helper to the ground with his fist.

The errant accountant was then then loaded into a carriage and driven to the dressing room in the Panathenaic Stadium, where he was tended to by none other than Prince Nicholas and revived with a drink of brandy and egg. Flack’s overall efforts at the Olympics earned him the unofficial title as “the Lion of Athens.”

Quite a holiday, then. And plenty to talk about, no doubt, when he returned to the office to account for himself…