THE HISTORY OF THE MARATHON: PART 1
By Mindy Solkin
Owner and Head Coach
The Running Center
The first competitive marathon race was held as the final event of the track and field program at the 1896 Olympics in Athens, Greece. Despite many references in literature to the "revival" of the marathon in the 1896 Olympics, there had been no competitive marathon races before 1896!
In 1894, when the 1896 Olympics were being planned, a French linguist and historian, Michel Breal, suggested that a 40K (24.8 miles) race be included in the track and field program. He believed the race, which would commemorate the run of Pheidippides from Marathon (a city in Greece) to Athens in 490BC, would add local interest to the Games. The Greek organizers agreed wholeheartedly.
According to legend, Pheidippides, a Greek soldier and a champion runner in the ancient Olympics, had been chosen as the courier to bear the news of a surprise Greek victory over the invading Persians on the plains of Marathon. Exhausted from the battle and the 25-mile run from Marathon to Athens, Pheidippides blurted out the message, "Rejoice, we conquer!" Then he collapsed and died.
During the 1896 Olympic track and field competition in Athens, the Greeks had suffered daily disappointments, largely because of the outstanding performances of the American athletes. Heavily favored in several events, the Greeks had not won anything.
Georgios Averoff, a philanthropist who had financed the rebuilding of the Olympic stadium, offered his daughter's hand in marriage and a dowry of one million drachma (about $2 million in today's dollars) to the marathon winner- if he were a Greek. A doctor offered a barrel of vintage wine. A tailor offered clothing for life. Other donated prizes included 2,000 pounds of candy, free shaves and haircuts for life, groceries for life, cattle, sheep, and jewelry.
The odds for a Greek victory were good, since 21 of the 25 entrants were Greeks. The other four runners were from France, Australia, Hungary and the United States. Through much of the race, the three leaders were non-Greeks. But as the runners neared Athens, first the American, then the Frenchman, and finally the Australian collapsed from the fast pace. The steady pace of a Greek runner named Spiridon Louis prevailed. Staggering into the stadium, covered with perspiration and dust, and seven minutes ahead of the second-place finisher, Louis was greeted by Prince George and Prince Constantine, who ran around the track with him to the finish line. Then they carried him on their shoulders to the royal box to be congratulated by their father, King George. The crowd in the stadium and on the surrounding hills were delirious with joy. People were cheering and sobbing. Many women removed their jewelry and threw it at Louis's feet as he rounded the track.
There are many legends associated with Spiridon Louis. Some say he was a poor shepherd who trained for his Olympic Marathon debut by praying in front of holy icons and fasting for two days and two nights before the race. Other sources say he was a mailman, or a soldier, or a farmer, or a messenger.
It is known, however, that Louis was earning his living at that time by selling water to the Athenians, who did not have good sources of water in the city. Twice a day Louis would load two barrels of water on his mule and run beside the animal the 14K (8.6 miles) from the water supply in the village of Amarousi to Athens. Louis's routine of running shorter-than-racing distances with periods of rest in between was not unlike current interval training methods. This type of training provided an advantage to Louis over the other marathon participants, although no one knew it at the time.
The legends are mixed as to the gifts that Louis accepted after the Games. Some sources say he accepted nothing. Others say he became a wealthy man. What we do know, however, is that the gift of the philanthropist's daughter's hand in marriage, was never taken. Spiridon Louis was unable to accept the offer as he was already married!
So if the 1896 Olympic Marathon distance was 40K (25.8 miles), why do we run 26.2 miles? Find out in The History Of The Marathon, Part 2, coming in August!
© 2003 The Running Center™ All Rights Reserved
Mindy Solkin is the Owner and Head Coach of The Running CenterTM. She is
certified by USA Track & Field (USATF) as a Level III Running Coach (the
highest level) and by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) as a personal
Known as "Coach Mindy" to her runners, she has coached thousands of people
over the past ten years, helping them to achieve their goals on the open
roads and the winding trail, whether it is running their first mile or
pursuing their personal best in the marathon.
Mindy was the creator of the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society's Team In Training
marathon program in New York City and served as its Head Coach from 1994
through 2001. From 1995 through 2002 training over 3,000 runners to run marathons in cities around the world, Mindy was the Head Coach at Reebok
Sports Club/NY. She is also the creator of the Polar Heart Bra® and has been
a PowerBar® Team Elite athlete since 1994. She can be reached at www.TheRunningCenter.com.