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Top 6 Longest Olympic Competitions

By Peggy Shinn | May 21, 2015, 1:24 p.m. (ET)

Connie Carpenter Phinney and Rebecca Twigg compete in the women's road race at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games on July 29, 1984.

At Pimlico on Saturday, American Pharoah won the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes in 1:58.46. It was the slowest time in the 1-3/16-mile race since 1950, no doubt due to the muddy track.

Still, it was hardly enough time for spectators to refill their Black-Eyed Susans. Compared to many athletic competitions, horse races finish faster than it takes baseball players to get on base or football players to score a first down. And tied scores lead to extra innings and overtime.

The record books list the world’s longest baseball game at 33 innings and an ice hockey playoff game that stretched through six overtimes.

And then there’s the famous tennis match at Wimbledon in 2010, when American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut battled for 11 hours and 5 minutes, with Isner finally beating Mahut in the fifth set, 70-68.

With the summer sports season underway, we wondered which Olympic events were marathons — besides the actual marathon. (Note: We did not include multi-event sports such as the decathlon.)

Here’s a look at some of the longest events in six different Olympic sports. Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments below.

Cycling, 1896 Olympic Games

12-hour race

Alexi Grewal competes in the men's road race at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games on July 29, 1984.

The longest event in Olympic history was not a contest that dragged on due to a tie. It was an event in which the athletes knew from the outset how long they would compete. It was a cycling race called “the race of 12 hours,” held only at the Games of the I Olympiad in 1896.

In Athens’ new velodrome, the 12-hour race attracted six cyclists. The race started at 5 a.m. and by noon, three of the entrants had retired. By the end of the race, only two men remained: Adolf Schmal from Austria and Frederick Keeping from Great Britain. After 12 hours of continuous pedaling, Schmal was declared the winner, only 333 yards ahead of Keeping. The Austrian had ridden 295 kilometers.

“On account of the bad weather and because the spectacle of seeing the cyclists whirl round and round in close succession was rather monotonous, the audience inside the velodrome was not a large one,” said the official report. The race was never held again in Olympic competition.

Although bike-race times decreased in future Olympiads, distances did not. The men’s road race at the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games stretched 315.4 kilometers (196 miles) around Lake Mälar and began at 2 a.m. With 151 entrants from 19 nations, the organizing committee decided to start the competitors at two-minute intervals, rather than a mass start (making it really a time trial, not a road race). Ten hours, 42 minutes and 39 seconds later, Rudolph Lewis from South Africa crossed the finish line and won the gold medal.

American Carl Schutte started at 4:46 a.m. — almost three hours after Lewis — and finished in 10 hours, 52 minutes, 38.8 seconds, fast enough for third place. Hailing from Kansas City, Missouri — where his father owned a lumber business — Schutte moved from sixth into third place somewhere between mile 100 and 123. With about 30 miles to go, he moved into second place, but by the finish, had fallen back to third. He earned the bronze medal, the first Olympic medal for the U.S. in cycling.

Schutte earned another bronze medal when the times for the top four American riders were added for the team time trial event. Alvin Loftes (11:13:51.3) in 11th, Albert Krushel (11:17:30.2) in 13th and Walden Martin (11:23:55.2) in 17th joined Schutte on the team time trial podium.

American cyclists did not medal again in the Olympic Games until 1984, when Alexi Grewal, Connie Carpenter Phinney and Rebecca Twigg all won medals in the men’s and women’s road races. Davis Phinney, Ron Kiefel, Roy Knickman and Andrew Weaver also won a bronze medal in the men’s team time trial, by then a race unto itself, with all four competitors riding in a paceline for the 100-kilometer distance. Their time: 2:01:46.

The men’s road race remains one of the longest events at the summer Games, with cyclists often battling on the road for more than five hours. At the London 2012 Olympic Games, Alexandr Vinokurov from Kazakhstan won the 250-kilometer men’s road race in 5:45:57. Taylor Phinney — son of Connie Carpenter and Davis Phinney — was the top American in fourth in 5:46:05.

Track and Field, men’s 50-kilometer race walk, 1932 Olympic Games

4 hours, 50 minutes, 10 seconds

Athletes compete in the 50-kilometer race walk event at the Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games on Aug. 3, 1932. 

True or false: The marathon is the longest track and field event at the Olympic Games.


The 50-kilometer race walk is longer both in distance and time. The event made its Olympic debut at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, with 38-year-old Tommy Green from Great Britain winning in 4:50:10. The fastest walker from the U.S. that year was Ernest Crosbie, who finished eighth in 5:28:02. Crosbie also competed at the 1936 and 1948 summer Games.

Now, competitors walk the 50-kilometer race almost two hours faster. Sergey Kirdyapkin from Russia won the Olympic gold medal at the 2012 Games in 3:35:59. John Nunn was the top American, finishing in 4:03:28, a personal best.

Tennis, men’s singles, 2012 Olympic Games

4 hours, 26 minutes 

Roger Federer of Switzerland returns a shot against Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina in the semifinal of men's singles tennis at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Wimbledon on Aug. 3, 2012 in London.

At first glance, tennis and the word “marathon” do not appear to go hand-in-hand. Most best-of-three-set matches last around 2 hours, and even at the Grand Slam events, where the men play best-of-five, many matches finish in 3-4 hours. The grueling, epic match between Isner and Mahut in 2010 was a startling exception.

Also an exception was the marathon battle between Sir Francis Gordon Lowe, from Great Britain, and Avgoustos Zerlentis from Greece (also known as Anthanasios Zerlendtis) in the second round of men’s singles at the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games. Their five-set, 72-game match is the longest in terms of both games and time on court. Lowe won the match, 14-12, 6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, in just under six hours. But those six hours spanned two days.

Lowe was then eliminated in the fourth round after another five-set match — against the eventual bronze medalist, Charles Winslow from South Africa. Lowe had also played in the 1912 Games in Stockholm, losing to Anthony Wilding from the Australia/New Zealand team in the bronze-medal match.

In 1928, the IOC removed tennis from the Olympic program. When it returned in 1988 as a medal sport, the tiebreaker had become part of the game. Developed by Jimmy Van Alen and introduced to Grand Slam tournaments in 1970, the tiebreaker brought a merciful end to “those damnable deuce sets.”

“Matches like that are Chinese water torture for players, court officials and fans alike,” Van Alen told Tennis Magazine this winter.

In 1992, the International Tennis Federation and International Olympic Committee changed the men’s singles and doubles format from best-of-five-set matches to best-of-three, except for the gold-medal match in men’s singles.

Under these rules, two matches at the London 2012 Games set records for length. In the third round, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga from France beat Milos Raonic from Canada, 6-3, 3-6, 25-23 — the longest in number of games played (66) since 1992.

Four days later, Roger Federer of Switzerland took on Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals. Their three-set marathon lasted 4 hours, 26 minutes, with Federer beating the Argentine 3-6, 7-6 [5], 19-17. It was the longest Olympic match in terms of time since 1992.

Track and Field, men’s marathon, 1904 Olympic Games

3 hours, 28 minutes, 53 seconds

Frank Pierce (#9), Arthur Newton (#12) and Tom Hicks (#20) compete in the marathon at the St. Louis 1904 Olympic Games on Aug. 30, 1904 in St. Louis.

Though the men’s world record for the marathon is currently 2:02:57, and Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich won the men’s race at the 2012 Olympic Games in 2:08:01, the race wasn’t always run this quickly.

At the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, the marathon was a suffer-fest lasting almost four hours for some competitors. Of the 32 runners who started the race, only 14 finished. Americans John Lordan, Sammy Mellor and Mike Spring — all winners of then-recent Boston Marathons — were among the DNFs.

Conditions were brutal. Race organizers started the race at 3 p.m., when summer temperatures in the Midwest often rise into the humid 90s. The race course followed country roads, with follow vehicles kicking up dust. And water was only available around miles 6 and 12.

Fred Lorz was the first to arrive at the finish. But the American quickly confessed that he had abandoned the race early on, hopped into a car, then only started running again when the car broke down about seven miles from the finish.

Team USA’s Tom Hicks was the real winner, crossing the finish line in 3:28:53 — but not without assistance. About 10 miles from the finish, an exhausted Hicks wanted to lie down. In what’s considered the first case of doping at the Olympic Games, Hicks’ handlers fed him strychnine, rat poison that stimulates the nervous system in small doses. Upon finishing, Hicks — understandably — required a doctor’s care.

Since 1904, marathon times have gradually decreased. Kenya’s Samuel Wanjiru holds the Olympic record in 2:06:32, set at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia set the women’s record of 2:23:07 at the London Games.

Triathlon, women’s, 2004 Olympic Games

Susan Williams competes in the running portion of the women's triathlon on Aug. 25, 2004 during the Athens 2004 Olympic Games in Vouliagmeni Olympic Centre, Greece.

2 hours, 4 minutes, 43.45 seconds

Few endurance contests sound as tough as the three-sport triathlon, an event first held at San Diego's Mission Beach in 1974 and popularized by the Hawaiian IRONMAN Triathlon. That event started as a bet to see who was the fittest athlete: a runner, swimmer or cyclist. U.S. Navy Commander John Collins and his wife, Judy, suggested combining the courses for the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.5 miles), Around-Oahu Bike Race (115 miles but shortened to 112 miles for the triathlon) and the Honolulu Marathon. Gordon Haller won the initial contest in 11 hours, 46 minutes, 58 seconds.

Triathlon made its Olympic debut 22 years later, at the 2000 Games in Sydney — at what’s now termed the “Olympic distance” (1.5-kilometer open water swim, 40-kilometer bike, 10-kilometer run). The men finish the event in about 1 hour, 50 minutes; the women in about 2 hours.

To date, the slowest triathlon competition has been the women’s race at the 2004 Athens Games. Austrian Kate Allen finished in 2:04:43.45. Susan Williams finished in 2:05:08.92 — fast enough for third place and America’s first, and so far only, Olympic medal in triathlon.

Swimming, women’s open water, 2012 Olympic Games

1 hour, 57 minutes, 38.2 seconds

Eva Risztov of Hungary competes in the open water swimming women's 10-kilometer race at Hyde Park on Aug. 9, 2012 in London.

When Matthew Webb successfully swam the English Channel in 1875 (a distance of 21 miles), marathon swimming was born. Since then, marathon swimmers have competed at distances anywhere from a few hundred meters to over 50 miles; at 88 kilometers (54.68 miles), the Maratón Acuatico Internacional Hernandarias-Parana in Argentina is reportedly the longest pro marathon swimming race in the world.

FINA has held marathon, or open water, world championships in the 5-kilometer, 10-kilometer and 25-kilometer distances since 2000. But open water swimming did not make its Olympic debut until the London Games in 2012. The Olympic events are held at 10 kilometers for both men and women.

In The Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park, Eva Risztov from Hungary won the gold medal in 1:57:38.2. American Haley Anderson was 0.4 seconds behind her (1:57:38.6) for silver.

Anderson had made her open-water debut just two years earlier, finishing fourth at the 2010 world championships in the 25-kilometer race.

Her time? 6 hours, 15.23 seconds.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.