The historic footsteps of an unsung legend
In July 1960, King Paul awarded Harilaos Vasilakos (center) the Golden Cross of the Order of the Phoenix.
The story of the first man to have run from Marathon to Athens following the Greek victory over the Persians in 490 BC is so disputed that its details have more or less been relegated to the realm of romantic legend, but 24 centuries later another star emerged in the first modern race along the ancient route, a Maniot named Harilaos Vasilakos, who many say should have taken the gold at the 1896 Olympics instead of Spyros Louis.
Vasilakos, the grandson of Maniot clansman Vassilis Vasilakos, was born in Piraeus in 1877 after his father Michalis abandoned his native village in the southern Peloponnese and joined the army in the hope of making a better life for himself and his family. The only possession he prized was a certificate of valor awarded to his father for his contribution in the Greek War of Independence. Michalis had one son, Harilaos, and two daughters, Ourania and Evangelia.
Not much is known about Vasilakos’s formative years, other than that his father died when Harilaos was just 14 years old after falling from a tree while trying to catch a ball during a family outing. Vasilakos was an excellent student and was admitted to Athens Law School while also holding down a job at the Athens Court of First Instance in order to support his mother and sisters. His free time was given over to sports, and long-distance running in particular. Several years later, doctors observed that his lungs were larger than average.
The revival of the Olympic Games, after French linguist Michel Breal recommended a repetition of the race run by the soldier from Marathon, inspired many young men at the time to get involved in sports. When the actual event was announced, a number of sports associations organized long-distance runs, mostly around 40 kilometers.
Harilaos Vasilakos signed up and was give the number 1.
“After a distance of 8 kilometers, the first runner, Mr. Vasilakos, reached Aghia Paraskevi, where peasants and acquaintances had gathered as they awaited the arrival of the athletes,” wrote Asty newspaper at the time.
There may be some debate concerning the name of the first man to run the course back in 490 BC, but there is none regarding the first winner of the first marathon race: Harilaos Vasilakos (of the Panellinios sports association), who was the first to run into the Panathenaic Stadium on March 10, 1896, with a time of 3 hours and 17 minutes. According to a report in Acropolis, his mother ran after him into the stadium.
The organizing committee, however, decided to hold another race in order to bolster the number of Greek participants at the Olympics in early April. It has since been widely reported that Louis ran in this race but didn’t make the cut, getting his ticket into the Games only thanks to the intervention of a high-ranking military officer.
A taboo subject
The date was March 29, 1896 (by the Julian calendar). At the Vasilakos family village, Lygereas near Gythion, the main church was celebrating its feast day. The Maniots, who knew their fellow-villager would be running in the Olympics, prayed for him to win.
Vasilakos stood at the starting line in an outfit sewn by his mother. “The shirt was silk, the trousers linen and he wore a cravat and black sash. Over his shoes he wore gaiters that he had designed himself so he wouldn’t be bothered by the stones. He was always an elegant dresser,” his grandson, also named Harilaos Vasilakos, tells Kathimerini.
When the Olympic marathon race started it was 17 degrees Celsius and the atmosphere was festive, while over 70,000 spectators had gathered at the Panathenaic Stadium, hoping that a Greek would win. Their wishes came true when the starter announced that Louis was ahead. The water-carrier from Maroussi achieved a time of 2.58.50, while the second runner to enter the stadium was Vasilakos in 3.6.3. Rumors that Louis had taken a short cut through a field have never been confirmed but still take up a paragraph in his history.
“My grandfather avoided talking about the 1896 Olympic Games. He was like a man who had swallowed a grave injustice and said nothing. He would tell us sports stories but never talk about that. He was an educated and sophisticated man who abhorred injustice,” says Vasilakos’s grandson.
The next few years of Vasilakos’s life were spent between sports and work at the Economy Ministry. He is also believed to have established powerwalking in Greece. In fact, he won the first such race ever organized, on May 19, 1900.
Vasilakos was a dapper man, known for his sense of style. He had a weakness for women and enjoyed the respect of the aristocracy well into his golden years. He had a son, Constantinos, and two grandchildren, Harilaos and Elina.
“I’ll never forget the stories he told us,” says his grandson. “Once, someone tried to steal the gold watch he’d won at the Olympics but he proved that could have been a boxing champion as well. Another time he saved a businessman from a gang of thieves.”
Vasilakos died on December 1, 1964, and up until his final days spoke with great pride of his roots. Unfortunately, the authorities in Mani appear indifferent and have done nothing to honor the only Olympian the region has ever produced. Luckily, the birthplace of the Olympic Games decided to organized a tribute to Vasilakos, holding a race from from Amaliada to Ancient Olympia on March 26 and 27 this year.