The Olympics in Paris were supposed to be the first ever in modern times, as the city was proposed to hold the Games in 1900, in a meeting that took place in the Sorbonne as far back as 1894. As the waiting time was considered too long, it was decided that Athens would hold the first Olympics in 1896, and Paris would hold the second ones together with the World Exhibition. Among the curiosities of these Games, they were the first ones with female competitors, and the only time that live animals (pigeons) were used as target in the shooting competitions.

Among the 19 participants that started the marathon on July 19, 1900 at 14.30 and with a 32°C temperature there was a Michel Johann Théato, that would become the first French Olympic champion (or so was considered for a few years). It was to be hold on a 25 miles course that would follow the old city walls, and that would prove a total chaos, as the course wasn´t closed and daily activities continued normally around town. Because of the intense heat after only a few miles there were only 9 remaining athletes. Théato felt indisposed for a few miles, but he was able to recover his energy and surpass his fellow countryman Émile Champion, and win the race with 2.59.45, 4 minutes ahead of him.

Controversies started immediately with the American competitors, and specially Arthur Newton, that finished 5th, who claimed that he had taken the lead and never been surpassed before arriving to the finish line. This would imply that Théato has taken a shortcut. It is not clear if he was a cabinetmaker, a baker or a gardener, but he lived in Paris and knew well its street maze, and some authors claimed, without proofs, that he could have used this knowledge to win the race. Probably it wasn´t the case as there were numerous spectators following the race. As the city was opened to the traffic, the other American, Dick Grant, that had finished 7th decided to sue the IOC because of an incident with a cyclist, a claim that was dismissed soon after.

Although Théato is still considered the first French Olympic champion in athletics, it was proved that he was born in Luxembourg, then his family had moved to Belgium and finally to France, where he competed for the Racing Club and worked occasionally as gardener. Luxembourg claimed the medal for themselves, a claim that was dismissed in 2004, and so the victory still counts for France.

As for Théato himself he became professional after the Olympics, but his best achievement was to finish second in the French cross-country championships on the following year. Afterwards his life entered anonymity, and even his death is not clear if it was in 1919 or 1923.


Sourced from:

Pictures in the public domain used under Creative Commons Licence

During the Olympic marathon race
Théato arrival to the finish line

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *