Ancient Runner Embodies Spirit of Games
By Pepper Provenzano
Fact or legend, few dispute that the story of the Athenian courier Phidippides is inspirational.
In 490 B.C., King Darius landed a Persian fleet and a powerful army on Greek shores, and was met in battle at the plain of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens, by a mostly Athenian army under the general Miltiades. Everyone expected the greatly outnumbered Greeks to lose, but Miltiades devised a flanking maneuver that surprised the Persians and sent them back to the harbor.
Miltiades feared that the Persian ships would then attack Athens by sea, and he knew the people of Athens were prepared to set the city on fire and flee, so he sent news via courier of the Greek victory at Marathon, and set out with his army to Athens.
According to Greek legend, he chose the swift Athenian courier Phidippides, who ran approximately 25 miles in full armor from Marathon to Athens, gasped "Rejoice (Nike), we conquer!", and dropped dead of exhaustion.
Only days before, Phidippides already had become famous because he ran 140 miles from Athens to Sparta and back to seek reinforcements.
Whether the story of Phidippides is fact or legend depends on whom you ask. According to historians, there is documentation for the extraordinary run from Athens to Sparta, but no conclusive record that Phidippides was the courier who carried news of victory from Marathon to Athens. Even the distance of the run has been a subject of debate. Some say Phidippides ran 22 miles (35 kilometers) and some records estimate the distance at 24 miles.
The defining conflict in which democracy prevailed remains a subject of military study, but its symbolic importance is far more significant. The Battle of Marathon marks the first time that Greek city-states joined forces to fight a common enemy in order to preserve their democracy.
Regardless, the first modern Olympics introduced the marathon in 1896 in honor of the distance-running Athenian messenger. While Phidippides' story may not be proven, his character has transcended nearly 25 centuries to embody the spirit of the Games.