“In spirit, in heart, and in endurance, Juan C. Zabala, a slim young son of Argentina, was the modern reincarnation of Pheidippides of old”.
Los Angeles Examiner, after his Olympic victory.
Los Angeles was selected as the Olympic host of the 1932 meeting, as it was the only city candidate. Celebrated during the Great Depression the number of athletes in these Games was smaller than in Stockholm 1928. It was the first time an Olympic village was built to allocate the athletes (only the males, as females were distributed among hotels in the city), and the first time a podium was used to give the medals.
Early on 1932 the great favourite for the marathon was the Finnish Paavo Nurmi, even when he had never completed a full marathon. In the Finnish trials he retired after 40k, having managed an astonishing time of 2 hours and 22 minutes. Having travelled to Los Angeles, he was excluded by the IAAF three days before the Olympics for violating the amateur rules after receiving some money in one of his running tours. With Nurmi out of the scope, and no clear favourite, British Sam Ferris and Duncan McLeod, and Finnish trial winner Armas Toivonen, looked as the top contenders for the marathon victory.
Juan Carlos Zabala, nicknamed the “Ñandu criollo”, was born in 1912. Orphan since very young his childhood was not easy, growing in an orphanage. He started running early, and among other victories in shorter distances, he had already won the Kosice marathon in 1931 and competed in two of the North-American trials, after moving to the United States to acclimate for the Olympics. At the time it was illegal to compete in the Olympic marathon to athletes younger than 20, so the Chilean president allowed him to change his date of birth to 1911 to compete in Los Angeles.
Race started on August 7th at 15.38, with 29 runners from 15 countries. Argentina, Finland, Japan, Canada and the United States entered 3 athletes each. It was the marathon with less runners since the opening Games of 1896. The Olympic stadium had 80 thousand spectators to enjoy the last day of track and field events.
Zabala took the lead early, being the first out of the stadium. The course toured the city, with 7 intermediate control stations that allowed spectators in the stadium know about the race development. By the second station (4.5 miles) Zabala was still in the lead, followed by the Mexican Pomposo just seconds behind him, and a group of 7 runners later.
By the fourth station (14.5 miles) Zabala was still in the lead, with a 1-minute advantage over Finland´s Virtaner, and Toivonen in third place. Virtaner managed to get in the lead, although his hard effort would be pointless, as he started losing positions, retiring at 23 miles. McLeod, according to his plan of attacking in mile 20 was the leader at the sixth station (22 miles), followed by Zabala, Toivonen, and Japanese Tsuuda, one minute behind each, and Ferris in fifth place.
McLeod leadership was short-lived, and by the last control station (24 miles) Zabala was again in the lead, although struggling. Ferris, still fresh, started rapidly climbing positions from behind. It looked that he would manage to close the gap and claim victory. Entering the stadium for the last lap, Zabala hold his place and managed to win the gold medal in 2.31.37, with Ferris entering just 19s behind, and Toivonen closing the medal positions a further 17s behind. McLeod would finish fourth, 29s after Toivonen, for the most contended marathon until then.
Zabala became a celebrity, living in the United States for some time, and competing all over Europe. This would not be the last Olympic appearance for Zabala, as he tried to revalidate his title in Berlin four years later, having bettered the 20k world record only a few months earlier. He was the flag bearer for Argentina in the opening ceremony and managed to finish sixth in the 10000 metres. In the marathon he took an early lead again, but around the 30k abandoned the race, and retired from athletics shortly afterwards, being only 25.
Zabala was an inconsistent marathon runner, as he competed in five marathons but only was able to finish the two he won. Later in his life he was accused of having Nazi links, as he was running partner of Heinrich Himmler, SS leader, while in Germany. He rejected these theories alleging that was later rejected entry in Germany because of helping some Jewish to escape to Denmark.
An Argentinian movie based on his life, “Campeón a la Fuerza”, premiered in 1950. In 1980 he was named best Argentinian athlete of the century, dying in 1983.
“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.