No race in the ancient Olympic games was greater than twenty-four laps,
a distance of about three miles. In modern times, the marathon race
evolved to be a 42,195-meter feat.
Contemporary Drawing to the 1896 Olympics.
Spiros Louis leads the parade of flags dressed
in traditional apparel.
The long-distance marathons that we run today for recreation or competition began as
a necessity, not a sport. The ancient Greeks used foot couriers to communicate between cities.
The most famous of these was Phidippides, and it is from his story that the marathon gets its name.
The First Marathon Runner
Near the end of the 5th century, the powerful Persian Empire decided to expand into Europe
and attack the scattered collection of independent city-states that were Greece.
In 490 B.C., the Persian army landed a large force just outside of one of the city-states,
Athens, on the plains of Marathon. The Athenians desperately needed the help of their rival state,
militaristic Sparta, to fend off the attack.
Phidippides, a professional runner, was hastily sent to Sparta to ask for help.
Phidippides ran the mountainous, rugged, 140-mile distance in 48 hours.
The Spartans were willing to help, but could not violate their established law,
which prohibited them from leaving Sparta before the full moon.
Phidippides ran the same 140 miles back to Athens with the disappointing news.
The small Athenian army (including Phidippides) marched north to the plains of Marathon
to face the Persian army unaided.
Although the Athenian army was vastly outnumbered, they launched an effective attack.
They succeeded in turning back the Persian army, which fled to the sea and sailed south for Athens.
The Athenian army headed back to defend Athens, but Phidippides was sent ahead to carry the
news of the victory and warn of the approaching Persian ships.
Although he must have been at the limits of his endurance,
having just run to Sparta and back and spent the morning fighting in heavy armor,
Phidippides didn't hesitate. Amazingly, he reached Athens (approximately 25 miles from Marathon)
in perhaps 3 hours, delivered his message, and then died shortly thereafter from exhaustion.
Sparta and the other Greek city-states eventually came to the aid of Athens and they were
able to turn back the Persian attempt to conquer Greece.
Nearly 2,500 years later, the legend of Phidippides sparked the imaginations
of the fathers of the modern Olympic games.
The Rebirth of the Marathon Legend
The concept of a "marathon" didn't exist in the 19th century.
During the 1894 International Athletic Congress, Michel Bréal,
a linguist and student of Greek mythology, suggested including a marathon race
at the first Olympic games. With Coubertin's support, the marathon concept was well received.
The congress in turn proposed the idea of long-distance "marathon" race to the Athens Olympic
Organizing Committee. The committee was understandably enthusiastic.
Here, after all, was a race that grew out of Greek history and commemorated the feat
of a Greek runner.
The Marathon Frenzy
For Greeks in particular, the marathon was a special event.
The Greek people of 1896 were very aware of their glorious heritage that now existed
as ancient and abandoned theaters and stadiums.
They had observed with great interest the restoration of the Panathenaic stadium
in preparation of the return of an ancient Greek legacy, the Olympic games.
The new marathon race was considered the highlight of the first revived Olympics.
The marathon, which was run on April 10, 1896, was a close and dramatic race.
There was no TV coverage in those days, so news of the race was carried back to
the stadium by bicycle or horseback. With six miles to go, word arrived that Edwin Flack,
an Australian who had already won gold medals in the 800 and 1,500-meter races,
was well in the lead. The mostly Greek crowd was disheartened by the news.
A Greek runner named Spiros Louis was in second place behind Flack.
With 5 miles to go, he pulled slightly in front of Flack.
For two and a half miles they ran in sight of each other,
until Louis finally pulled ahead and Flack faltered and was carried from the course.
When this news reached the stadium, it was met with jubilation.
As Louis ran through the streets of Athens he was flanked by frenzied spectators.
When he entered the stadium, the Crown Prince Nicholas and Prince George honored him
by running with him to the finish line, then to the royal box.
He had completed the race in time of 2:58:50, a 7 minute lead over his competitors.
a remarkable improvement over the times
posted by the winners of the trial races.
Louis was an instant national hero. The Greeks were ecstatic.
Not only had their ancient games been revived in their capital city,
but a fellow countryman had won the most glorious of events, the Greek-born marathon race.
The Spiros Louis Legacy
Many myths and legends grew up around Louis following his famous victory-so many that
it is difficult to ascertain the truth about him. He was twenty-four years old,
from the village of Maroussi (now a suburb of Athens) and, according to which source you believe,
he was a poor shepherd, a well-off farmer, a postal messenger, a soldier, or a peasant.
Regardless of his profession, it is certain that he was a veteran of several long military marches.
Since its revolution of independence in 1921, Greece was engaged in constant warfare up until
World War I in 1914. The Greek treasuries were empty and the people were exhausted by the demands of war.
Louis' victory was a boost to Greek morale and infused the people with immense national pride.
Today, a number of Athenian streets are named after Louis, as well as a stadium.
His story even inspired the expression "egine Louis"-which can be translated as "to become like Louis" or
"take off like Louis"-has become part of the Greek language.
A Contagious Excitement
After the first modern Olympic games in Athens in 1896, a group from Boston that had competed
for the United States returned home full of excitement about the marathon race they had witnessed.
The result of that excitement was the establishment of the Boston Marathon the following year.
Run every April since 1897, the Boston race is considered by some the most prestigious of all marathons.
Greece was the birthplace of the marathon, and the revival of the Olympic games in Athens
in 1896 popularized the marathon as we know it today.
The Evolving Length of the Marathon
The 1896 Olympic marathon distance of 24.8 miles was based on the distance from Marathon
to the Panathenaic stadium in Athens, in honor of Phidippides' monumental journey.
At the 1908 Olympic games in London, the marathon distance was lengthened to 26 miles-from
the lawns of Windsor Castle (so that the grandchildren of Edward VII could see the start of the race)
to White City Stadium-and another 385 yards were added to bring the finish line to
Queen Alexandra's viewing box.
After 16 years of extremely heated discussion, this 42,195 meter distance
(26 miles and 385 yards) was established at the 1924 Olympics in Paris
as the official marathon distance.
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