The Modern Olympic Games are perhaps the most modern spectacle on the planet. Their pageantry, ritual, and tradition are beamed to billions via satellite, and every facet of their competition is not merely tinged with but ruled by modern technology. Yet the Olympics have their roots in a festival more ancient than the rites of Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism. Indeed if, as has often been suggested, the coliseums and stadiums our society has constructed in the twentieth century will ultimately be viewed as the cathedrals of our time, then the Olympic Games are our most sacred rite and Olympic champions our high priests. But the Olympics began in a time before satellites and television, a time before electronic timers, photo finishes, and computer rankings, a time when the greatest of gods was not sport, but Zeus.
The origin of the ancient Olympic Games is shrouded in legend, but it may have begun as a commemoration of Zeus' defeating Kronos in a wrestling match-the prize being possession of the earth. The exact date of the first Olympic Games is also lost. Some sources say 1253 B.C., others 884 B.C.. One thing is certain, however, every four years from 776 B.C. until 394 A.D., the strongest and swiftest men in Greece assembled to compete in the Olympic Games.
The Games were held in Olympia, a great complex that included a 60,000-seat stadium, a vast hippodrome for equestrian events, and a gymnasium for wrestlers, boxers, gymnasts, and others. Religious buildings were also and important part of Olympia, just as religious ceremonies were and important part of the Games. One building, the Olympium, housed a forty-foot ivory statue of Zeus with robes of gold, one of the seven wonders of the world.
With Zeus watching over the Olympics the Games grew in both size and importance. Wars were suspended during the time of Olympic competition, so great was the respect given the Games. The Olympics began with a single footrace, but grew to encompass a variety of events, many similar to those in modern track and field. However, no race in the ancient Olympics was greater than twenty-four laps around the Olympic stadium, a distance of about three miles.
The ancient Greeks were no strangers to long-distance running, but to them it served as a means to communicate not to compete. The Greeks used foot couriers to take important messages from city to city. Out of this tradition grew a legend so persistent that it would spark the imagination of men nearly 2,500 years later.
In 490 B.C. and army from Persia landed on the plain of Marathon, about twenty-five miles from Athens, with the intention of capturing and enslaving that city. The Athenians prepared for a battle that would determine the course of history for centuries to come. A victory for the powerful Persian Empire could destroy the independence of the Greek city-states and effectively end Greek civilization and culture.
While the massive Persian army landed, the Athenians sent a messenger named Philippides (his name was corrupted in later texts to Pheidippides) to Sparta to enlist the aid of the Spartans in the upcoming battle. He covered the distance of about 150 miles in less than two days, a remarkable accomplishment by any standard.
Back at Marathon, however, the decision was made not to wait for the Spartans. The Athenian army fell upon the vastly larger Persian forces while they were still preparing for battle. Against great odds, the Greeks prevailed. Though historians writing close to the time of the battle make no mention of the event, writers some 600 years later claim that a runner was dispatched to Athens to carry the news of the great victory. According to legend he reached the city, said, "Rejoice, we conquer," and fell to the ground dead. Though one source gives the runner's name as Philippides, it is highly unlikely that he would have made such a run after having just run to Sparta. If he had, contemporary historians would surely have noted it.
Whether any messenger at all was sent to Athens with the news of victory is a matter of some doubt, but certainly Philippides was not the messenger. Still, in the centuries that followed, the legend of Pheidippides (as he began to be called) and the legend of a runner who died to bring news of victory to the Athenians merged, and many later writers gave the name Pheidippides to the ill-fated runner. In the nineteenth century Robert Browning wrote in his Dramatic Idylls of Pheidippides' dash to Athens, his announcement of victory, and his death. Though Pheidippides was certainly not the runner who carried the news of Greek victory to Athens, and though it seems unlikely that any professional foot courier of ancient Greece would have perished after such a run, the legend took hold, and out of that legend grew the modern marathon race.
In 394 A.D., the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned all non-Christian celebrations in the Empire, effectively putting an end to the Olympic Games, Religion, for the time being, had separated from and usurped sport.
In the mid-1900s, interest in ancient Greece was on the rise. Archaeologists began to uncover the ruins of the ancient stadium at Olympia, and the idea of reviving the Olympic Games was pursued by a Greek businessman named Evangelios Zappas. With the support of the Greek government, Zappas staged an Olympic competition on November 15, 1859. That competition and three others (in 1870, 1875, and 1889) staged by the Greek government with money left by Zappas in his will, were not successful. Because of poor planning and improper facilities, spectators could not see the competition and some got into fights, which spilled over onto the track. It appeared that the Olympic Games, dormant for 1,500 years, would not continue into the new century.
A French baron named Pierre de Coubertin changed all that. Coubertin was an aristocrat who had worked for some years to improve the quality of physical education in France. In addition to a keen interest in athletics, Coubertin was a proponent of internationalism-cooperation between nations which he felt would promote peace. Inspired by the uncovering of the ruins at Olympia, the failed efforts to revive the ancient Games, and his interest in sports, Coubertin conceived the idea of reestablishing the Olympic Games. In 1892, he hosted a banquet for the Union of French Athletic Sports Clubs, a group he had founded five years earlier. In a speech at the banquet, he proposed reviving the Olympic Games, but the suggestion was met with a mixture of apathy and derision. Was Coubertin suggesting holding footraces in the nude as the ancient Greeks had? Was he seriously suggesting that civilized Europeans should compete with Africans and Asians?
Despite the close-mindedness of his compatriots, Coubertin did not give up. In 1894 he hosted an International Congress of Amateurs. On the program, after several topics concerning amateurism and sports, he listed "Reestablishment of the Olympic Games." The congress was not to discuss whether to revive the Olympics, but rather how it should be done. By the end of the conference, Coubertin had formed the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and plans were in place to stage the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece in 1896. He was able to convince delegates from many countries to enthusiastically support the idea. Though much work remained to be done before the Games could begin, Coubertin's dream seemed destined for reality.
Another French delegate to the conference, Michel Bréal, a linguist and historian, was enthralled by the legend of Pheidippides and the famous run from Marathon to Athens. Though the run was unrelated to Olympic competition, Bréal proposed the establishment of a long-distance footrace to commemorate the effort. He offered a silver trophy to whomever would win such a race. Coubertin loved the idea and promoted the race in many speeches he gave to stir up interest in the Games. The new race was called "the marathon" and was included as the final event on the Olympic agenda.
Thus, out of an accomplishment by an ancient Greek, a legend corrupted by historians and poets from Greece to England, and the dreams of two Frenchmen, was born the most audacious of races, the marathon. Little did Bréal know that he had struck a chord that would resonate ever louder as the next century progressed. For there is something in man that seeks out challenge, especially the challenge of a single man taking on a task in which all the forces of nature, and often the opinions of men, are arrayed against him; a task in which his own solitude may become his greatest enemy; a task that his own drive, his own desire, and his own ego cannot fail to make him accomplish. There is something in man that seeks out the challenge of the unknown. As the world around us became more and more known in this century, man increasingly turned to the unknown within himself and sought to challenge the limits of his very being. There is something in man that makes him run marathons.
There is, too, something in the Olympic Games that makes its marathon the greatest of all, not merely because it was first or because the legend of Pheidippides links the race to ancient Greece. 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. After all, the Olympic race is run only every four years, while Boston is an annual race. How many great marathoners will be denied an Olympic medal because they are not at the peak of their career in the right year? Boston is run in the cool weather if New England spring, while the Olympic race is run in the often unfavorably hot conditions of midsummer. How can such poor running conditions produce a true champion?
Yet winning the Olympic Marathon remains the ultimate accomplishment for a long-distance runner, in part because of the very limitations of the race. Like any other long-distance race, the Olympic Marathon requires strength, courage, and endurance but it also requires something else, something the skeptics might call the blessing of the gods. So, if many of the world's greatest marathoners were never Olympic champions, it is all the more reason to praise the few who have triumphed in this race, for in the religion that twentieth-century sport has become, they have truly been touched by the gods.