MARATHON OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS (V) – Stockholm 1912: KEN McARTHUR (1881-1960)

Start of the 1912 Marathon

“I went out to win or die, and it was worth two and a half years working and waiting for.”

Ken McArthur

Some countries did their first appearance in these Olympics, with Japan becoming the first Asian country, and first and last appearance of Serbia as an independent country until the 2008 Games. It was the last occasion where individuals could entry as private instead of being selected by a country.

As for the marathon, it would start in the Olympic stadium, go to the Sollentuna town, and come back to the stadium. Among the runners, world most renowned ones were present, with the North-Americans favourites, with the 1911 (Clarence DeMar) and 1912 (Mike Ryan) Boston marathon winners and the bronze medal at London Olympics 4 years earlier (Joe Forshaw). Kenneth McArthur entered for South Africa, and although little known outside his country he was undefeated in the distance, having won his three previous marathon races.

McArthur was born in Ireland (Ballymoney), and known as “Big Ken” because of his bulky frame. There he worked as a postman, usually running his rounds and racing against trains. In 1900 he moved to South Africa to become a policeman, and only then started to compete, winning many cross-country national championships. In 1908 he won Johannesburg marathon, and the following year Cape Town and Durham, when he finished 5 seconds shy of the standing world record (2.44.31).

Once again hot conditions were present in an Olympic marathon, with an estimated temperature of 32°C in the shade, and 68 runners of 19 countries present. In the early stages the Finnish Tatu Kolehmainen was leader, but at the turn around point South African Chris Gitsham took the lead, with a few more runners less than 1 minute behind him. Kolehmainen caught Gitsham, and they run together for a few miles, until Kolehmainen definitively dropped behind around mile 21. McArthur got to his teammate, and when he stopped for a drink, pulled away, being able to win the marathon in 2.36.54, with Gitsham less than a minute behind, and North American Strobino in third place. It is the only time that the same country has won gold and silver in the Olympic marathon.

Among the anecdotes of the marathon, the Japanese Kanakuri Shizō went missing when he stopped at a party to drink, and decided to quit the race. He took a train back to Stockholm, and without notifying any official, left the country on the following day. Invited again by Swedish authorities 50 years later, he managed to complete the race, with an unofficial time of 54 years. Sadly, this marathon also had the first fatality in the Olympic Games in the figure of Francisco Lázaro, a Portuguese marathon runner that decided to cover his body with fat to prevent sunburn and avoid transpiration. At the mile 19 he collapsed with a body temperature of 41°C, and nothing could be done to prevent his death. Before the race he had said: “Either I win, or I die”.

As for McArthur, about one year after his victory and already back in South Africa, a foot injury ended his running efforts. Once retired from the police, he moved briefly back to Ireland with his wife and settled on a family farm, although they eventually returned to South Africa, where he would die of old age in 1960.

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Pictures in the public domain used under Creative Commons Licence

Silver - Gitsham (South Africa)
Bronze- Strobino (United States)
McArthur crossing the finish line
Gold - McArthur (South Africa)

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