The Marathon is a race that always catches a watcher’s imagination.  To watch the runners run at near top speed for 26 miles and over 2 hours seems to draw the attention of even the most motionless couch potato.  The Virgin London Marathon and the New York Marathon draw over 35,000 entrants each year to their events.  The Boston Marathon is considered a premier event that all runners would like to get entered in.  Marathon training takes place all year around as there are so many events that can test the runner.

The first Olympic style games were held in England in 1612 and called the Cotswold Olimpick Games.  There were held annually, and continue to the present day.  Due to religious restrictions, there were times throughout the years where they were not held, some as much as 100 years, but they have been held since 1951. 

Greek interest in the games started in the early 1800s, after they rebelled against the Ottoman Empire and won their freedom in 1821.  They held Olympic Games in 1859, 1870, and 1875.

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In 1890 Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC).  He wanted an official committee to make sure that the Olympics would be held every four years, and that it would rotate between countries.

The first Olympic Games and the first Olympic Marathon took place in 1896.  The distance then was 40 km, or just under 25 miles.  The distance varied at each Olympics, for several Olympics.  In 1908 the distance was changed to allow the spectators,1896 Olympic Marathon including Queen Alexandra to have a good view of the finish.  In 1921, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) set the distance to be the same as the 1908 distance, of 26 miles, 385 yards.

The name Marathon is taken from the battle of Marathon in 490 BC.  The promoters of the Olympics, wanting to link it with the nostalgia of Greek history, looked at the Robert Browning Poem entitled, “Pheidippides”.   The poem tells of a runner who leaves the battle after the victory of Athens over Persia, to run to Athens to let them know of the victory.

And so, this is the way that most relate the tale of the naming of the Marathon today.  But that is not the way it happened.  Pheidippides did make a heroic run.  In some ways the true story, though harder to tell in a couple of sentences, is more dramatic.

Athens did fight Persia on the beach at Marathon.  Persia was invading Greece in retaliation of Athens and Eretria helping the Ionians try to rebel against Persia.  Persia was unbeatable at the time, and defeated the Ionians even with the Greeks city-states’ help.  The Greeks left and Persia brought Ionia back under control.  But Persia, under King Darius, wanted to take over Greece now also.  The PersianBattle Of Marathons landed at the beach of Marathon, close to Athens.  Athens was able to contain the invading Persian Army to the beach, but they were greatly outnumbered and sent to Sparta for help.

Pheidippides is the runner who went to Sparta for help.  He ran 150 miles to Sparta.  When he arrived, he was told that Sparta had just started an important celebration that could not be interrupted.  And that Sparta would be glad to send help in ten days.  Pheidippides then ran 150 mile back to Athens with the news.

Battle broke out before Sparta could arrive.  Athens managed to win the battle, and then they quickly marched roughly 25 miles to a second point where Persia was attempting a second landing, closer to the city of Athens.  They stopped the second invasion, and the Persians were defeated.

So the story of the runner of Marathon combines the run of Pheidippides to Sparta with the shorter march the Athens army did to stop the second landing of Persia.

One of the most dramatic races of modern times, and the reason the distance was probably set at 26 miles, 385 yards, occurred at the 1908 Olympics in London; the first time that distance was used.  As noted above, the distance had been changed to enable the spectators a better view of the finish.  Queen Alexandra was there to see the finish.  The end of the race was in the Olympic Stadium. 

An Italian runner, named Dorando Pietri, entered the stadium first, but clearly exhausted.  He was stumbling Pietri Finishing 1908 Olympic MarathonHayes Finishing 1908 Olympic Marathonand falling down.  He was helped to his feet several times by officials, and sent in the direction of the finish line.  The second runner to enter the stadium, Johnny Hayes, was in better shape and was trying to close the distance to Pietri and win the race.  The officials helped Pietri over the line first, but he was later disqualified, giving the Gold Medal to Hayes.  Queen Alexandra gave Dorando Pietri a silver cup the next day, for his effort. 

The first modern day marathons were just for men.  Almost from the beginning, women were unofficially running the races, but the officials did their best to keep them out.  It was thought that the long race would not be good for their health.  There were no races for women over 1500 meters until 1984.  In the Olympics, officials stated that the race just was not popular enough.  The rules stated that a women’s sport must be practiced in at least 25 different countries on 2 continents to be eligible for inclusion in the Olympics.  For men, the rule is 50 countries on 3 continents. 

Gradually there were more marathons available for women to run officially.  More races were organized for women, and more women were entering them, showing them to be popular.  The American College of Sports Medicine issued a statement saying there was no proof that the longer races were any worse for the female body than the male, and that the women should be allowed to race at the longer distances.  Nike Shoe Company started to support the addition of the marathon to the Olympics, and ran full page ads in newspapers saying so.

Finally the Olympic committee decided to add the races, and to waive the requirement of a 4 year lead time before adding them to an Olympic Games gathering.  Only Russia disagreed with the decision.  The vote was put to the full IOC and approved.  All of the races over 1500 meters, including the marathon, for women were included in the 1984 Olympics.2008 Olympic Marathon

So, next time this race catches your imagination, remember the history behind it.