The only female athlete
to participate in the first Modern Olympic Games
, Melpomene ran the marathon
against her family's wishes and despite having been denied permission to compete by the Olympic organizers.
Two dozen men from five countries gathered on the starting bridge in Marathon, Greece, and their assistants prepared water, wine, and brandy to be carried by bicyclists alongside the runners. Melpomene prepared herself out of sight of officials and ran parallel to the men until the official starter could no longer see the pack.
While French competitor Lermusiaux led the race, other runners stopped to rest or dropped out, exhausted. Melpomene, ignoring the jeers of onlookers, lost sight of the men but continued to run, stopping for just ten minutes in Pikermi to drink a glass of water. When she resumed the race, she passed amazed men who had been unable to keep going and had collapsed in the shade.
Spiridon Louis, the Greek runner, completed the race in just under three hours, tripping over the flowers, jewelry and money thrown into his path by the crowd. Melpomene, though, was not allowed into the stadium in Athens. She ran around it instead, finishing in four and a half hours.
Source: Grace and Glory: A Century of Women in the Olympics, by Jane Leder for Multi-Media Partners and Triumph Books, 1996.