Gold medal times in the marathon at the Summer Olympics 1896-2016

The Olympic marathon has been a permanent fixture in the men's roster since the inaugural Athens Games of 1896, while the women's event was first held 88 years later in Los Angeles. Ethiopian athletes have enjoyed the most success in Olympic marathons, winning six golds; two of which came from Abebe Bikila in 1960 and 1964, who was the first athlete to win back-to-back golds (the only other athlete to win two golds in the marathon was East Germany's Waldemar Cierpinski in 1976 and 1980). The Olympic records are 2 hours, 6 minutes and 32 seconds for men, set by Kenya's Samuel Wanjiru in 2008; and for women it's 2 hours, 32 minutes and 7 seconds, set by Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia in 2008. Two Kenyan runners set the current world records; Eliud Kipchoge set the men's record in Berlin in 2018, with a time of 2 hours, 1 minute and 39 seconds, and the women's world record of 2 hours, 14 minutes and 4 seconds was set by Brigid Kosgei in Chicago in 2019. Kipchoge also became the first runner ever to break the two-hour barrier in a marathon, with a time of 1 hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds, however this was in a controlled environment that included a supporting team and runners, and is not eligible for the official world record.

Origins of the marathon

In the Athens Olympics of 1896, the marathon was the most distinguished event of the tournament for the host nation, and winning it was the top priority. The inspiration for the marathon came from a Greek myth, where Pheidippides ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to deliver the news that Greece had successfully repelled the first Persian invasion in 490BCE. A route was created from the town of Marathon to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, and was approximately 40 kilometers (25 miles) long. Athenian runner Spyridon Louis went on to win the inaugural Olympic marathon, and became a national hero in the process. It was not until the London Olympics in 1908 where the distance of 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 km) would become the marathon standard, and the men's event is traditionally the final event of each Olympic Games.

1904 Olympic marathon

Unusually high temperatures and humidity, coupled with poor organization and planning, meant that the marathon in 1904 had the slowest winning time and most bizarre outcome in Olympic history. The temperature on the day was 32 degrees Celsius (92 Fahrenheit) in the shade, with a heat index of approximately 57 Celsius (135 Fahrenheit) for the competitors. There were just two water stops (both before the middle point), and officials also drove ahead of the the competitors, creating a dust cloud for the athletes to run into (this caused near fatal injuries to one competitor, who was later found at the side of the road suffering from a stomach hemorrhage after inhaling too much dust). These extreme conditions caused US runner, Fred Lorz, to drop out of the race after nine miles, where he was then escorted back to the stadium by his manager; when his manager's car broke down, Lorz re-entered the race as a joke, and was the first to cross the finish line. Shortly before accepting the gold medal, Lorz's duplicity came to light, and, although he confessed and claimed that it had all been a joke, he was disqualified and subsequently given a one year ban.

The eventual winner was Thomas Hicks; who was only able to finish the race after his team forced him to take a "performance-enhancing" mixture of rat poison and brandy to keep him running. The combination of poison, exhaustion and dehydration cause Hicks to hallucinate in the latter stages of the race, and he had to be carried across the finishing line by his team (he then received life-saving medical attention in the stadium). Cuban runner Andarín Carvajal hitchhiked his way to St. Louis to compete in the race, with no money or possessions upon arrival. As he had not eaten in forty hours, Carvajal stopped off during the race to eat some apples from an orchard, but the apples were rotten and Carvajal fell ill and had to stop again to take a nap in the middle of the race; nonetheless he finished in fourth place. Another runner who could have won the race had he not been interrupted was Len Taunyane of modern-day South Africa. He was one of the first two black Africans to compete in an Olympic event, and was sure to have finished in a much faster time had he not been chased more than a mile off course by a pack of aggressive dogs. Of the 32 runners who started the race, 18 failed to finish, giving it the highest incompletion rate of any Olympic marathon.

Gold medal winning times in the Men's and Women's marathon at the Summer Olympics from 1896 to 2016

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Sources

Release date

2019

Region

Worldwide

Survey time period

1896 to 2016

Supplementary notes

This data was collected using the official Olympic.org site, as well as a spreadsheet from the Guardian that includes data from 1896-2008 (available here), 2012 and 2016 data was compared with that from Encyclopaedia Britannica, and several news outlets were used to update the table when medals were reassigned (i.e. for doping offenses).

In order to display the data visually, the times have been converted into metric minutes. The standard times (male listed first) are as follows (h:mm:ss):
1896 - 2:58:50
1900 - 2:59:45
1904 - 3:28:53
1908 - 2:55:18
1912 - 2:36:55
1920 - 2:32:36
1924 - 2:41:23
1928 - 2:32:57
1932 - 2:31:36
1936 - 2:29:19
1948 - 2:34:52
1952 - 2:23:03
1956 - 2:25:00
1960 - 2:15:16
1964 - 2:12:11
1968 - 2:20:26
1972 - 2:12:20
1976 - 2:09:55
1980 - 2:11:03
1984 - 2:09:21 & 02:24:52
1988 - 2:10:32 & 02:24:40
1992 - 2:13:23 & 02:32:41
1996 - 2:12:36 & 02:26:05
2000 - 2:10:11 & 02:23:14
2004 - 2:10:55 & 02:26:20
2008 - 2:06:32 & 02:26:44
2012 - 2:08:01 & 02:23:07
2016 - 2:08:44 & 02:24:04

The winning athletes (male listed first) and their represented countries are as follows:
1896 - Spyridon Louis (Greece)
1900 - Michel Theato (France)
1904 - Thomas Hicks (US)
1908 - John Hayes (US)
1912 - Kennedy Kane McArthur (South Africa)
1920 - Hannes Kolehmainen (Finland)
1924 - Albin Stenroos (Finland)
1928 - Boughera El Ouafi (France)
1932 - Juan Carlos Zabala (Argentina)
1936 - Kitei Son (Japan)
1948 - Delfo Cabrera (Argentina)
1952 - Emil Zatopek (Czechoslovakia)
1956 - Alain Mimoun (France)
1960 - Abebe Bikila (Ethiopia)
1964 - Abebe Bikila (Ethiopia)
1968 - Mamo Wolde (Ethiopia)
1972 - Frank Charles Shorter (US)
1976 - Waldemar Cerpinski (East Germany)
1980 - Waldemar Cerpinski (East Germany)
1984 - Carlos Lopes (Portugal) & Joan Benoit (US)
1988 - Gelindo Bordin (Italy) & Rosa Mota (Portugal)
1992 - Young-Cho Hwang (South Korea) & Valentina Yegorova (Unified Team)
1996 - Josia Thugwane (South Africa) & Fatuma Roba (Ethiopia)
2000 - Gazahegne Abera (Ethiopia) & Naoko Takahashi (Japan)
2004 - Stefano Baldini (Italy) & Mizuki Noguchi (Japan)
2008 - Samuel Kamau Wanjiru (Kenya) & Constantina Tomescu (Romania)
2012 - Stephen Kiprotich (Uganda) & Tiki Gelana (Ethiopia)
2016 - Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) & Jemima Jelagat Sumgong (Kenya)

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