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07 Aug 1932
Los Angeles 1932

Zabala claims epic marathon triumph

In the Official Report of the 1932 Games, there is a grainy photograph showing the runners at the start of the marathon. Leading from the front is a 20-year old called Juan Carlos Zabala. Just over two and a half hours later, he became the youngest man to ever win an Olympic marathon.

Born in Rosario, Argentina in 1911, Zabala was orphaned at an early age. It was at the Marcos Paz children’s home in Greater Buenos Aires that he met sports instructor Alexander Stirling, who eventually became his coach and manager.

In 1931, Stirling mentored Zabala to victory in the South American 10,000m championship, prompting the coach to take him to Europe later that year so that he could gain experience. In Vienna, Zabala beat the 30,000m world record and 18 days later in his first ever marathon in Kosice, he emerged triumphant again, beating the previous course record.

Zabala’s European exertions were not yet finished. Eleven days after the marathon, he set a new South American record in the hour race, completing a hugely impressive tour of duty.

In light of his accomplishments the previous year, Zabala travelled to the Los Angeles Olympics as a firm favourite and just two months before the Games he established a new American record for the 10,000m race by winning a special event in New York.

“Zabala is a somewhat shy youngster of 20 years,” wrote an Iowa newspaper in the build-up to the Games. “He has a typical runner’s build, lithe, but with legs of proper power. Based on records made up to the present, Zabala seems destined to win an Olympic championship. Certainly, no United States runner has given promise of being able to match strides with the Argentina.”

Enhancing Zabala’s prospects even further was the absence of nine-time Olympic gold medallist Paavo Nurmi, who had been banned from competing in Los Angeles just two days before the Opening Ceremony after it was deemed that he no longer had amateur status.

Twenty-eight runners representing 14 countries lined up for the 26 mile and 285 yard endurance race, which started in the Olympic Stadium before winding its way along a designated route through the city, before finishing back in the prestigious arena, where some 75,000 fans had gathered for the occasion.

Zabala soon imposed himself on proceedings and led unchallenged until the last six miles of the race. Only then did he appear in any danger of relinquishing his position, but in the final mile and a half he managed to shake off his rivals to finish some 200 yards ahead of Sam Ferris of Great Britain, who finished second in a dramatic climax.

With a time of 2 hours 21 minutes 36 seconds, Zabala had achieved the double feat of a new Olympic record, while also becoming the youngest ever male Olympic marathon winner. Indeed, as the Official Report notes, so close was the race that that the first three runners to finish all exceeded the best previous Olympic record, set by Hannes Kolehmainen of Finland at the 1920 Games.

“Ripping off the handkerchief bound around his head, Zabala acknowledged the big crowd’s roar as he swung around the last turn and broke the tape,” reported a Utah newspaper. “While the forces of the United States were crowning their team triumph of relay speed, adding four new world records to the dizzy whirl in the Olympic stadium, Zabala was plodding the city streets, wearing down his rivals with machine-like strides that carried him strongly to the finish.”

Four years later, Zabala was rightfully confident of repeating his success at the Berlin Olympics and shortly before the Games he set a new world record over 20,000m. But in the final of the 10,000m he only managed to place sixth, while halfway through the marathon he tripped and was forced to retire from the race soon after.

In 1939, a film was produced depicting the early years of Zabala's life in the Marcos Paz orphanage. Sixteen years after his death in 1983, he was selected as Argentina's track and field athlete of the century.

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