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Marathon through centuries

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

The marathon is one of the most famous sports in the world. Although it started as part of the Olympic Games in the 19th century, nowadays Marathon Races are also held individually on an annual basis with a large number of participants and in many places, such as Athens, London and Boston.

The origin of Marathon

It all starts from the Marathon Valley. In the legendary battle of 490 BC. the Athenians, led by Miltiades, defeated the Persians against all odds. With the achievement of this monumental victory, according to tradition, a messenger - or a courier as we would call him today - ran to Athens to announce the great news. As soon as he arrived in the city, he shouted "Nenikikamen…", as for "We won…" and died of exhaustion. The great importance of his venture turned him into a hero.

The ancient testimonies about the marathon runner are few. The first Marathon Runner has been given many different and symbolic names, such as Thersippos, Euclid and Pheidippides or Philip. Scientists strongly dispute the fact that an Athenian, already exhausted from the battle, would run such a long distance wearing his weapons to carry the message of victory.

Pheidippides' last moment has inspired poets such as Robert Browning (1879) and painters such as Luc-Olivier Merson (1869).

The Marathon in the first modern Olympic Games

As we were informed at the Museum of the Olympic Games in Athens that we visited very recently, the proposal for the revival of the sport and its inclusion in the first modern Olympic Games was made in 1984 by the French Hellenist Michel Bréal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin.

It was decided to make a representation of the route taken by the messenger in ancient times in his honor. Thus, a route of 42 kilometers was planned, according to the standards of the first historical course, which is likely to match the current Athens Authentic Marathon.

The idea was that the Marathon would be more than just a race, but a symbol of the unity of the planet and the union of the past with the present.
Portrait of St. Louis (March 1896) in national costume, as the winner of the first marathon.
Portrait of St. Louis (March 1896) in national costume, as the winner of the first Marathon.

The first Marathon was held on the 29th of March 1896, the fifth day of the first modern Olympic Games. A silver cup was designed and crafted for the first winner of the Marathon.

The participants in this first event were mostly Greek. Of the 18 athletes who participated in total, 12 were of Greek nationality, while the first 2 places were secured by Greeks.

The first to be awarded was the famous Spyros Louis, who was not an athlete but a 23-year-old water carrier from Athens, as he crossed the huge kilometer distance in just 2:58:50. Charilaos Vasilakos came 2nd with a time of 3:06:03. Since then, Spyros Louis has become a national symbol and his image in Greek costume is known worldwide.

The enthusiasm for holding the 1st Olympic Games in Athens reached its peak when the winner Spyros Louis entered the Olympic Stadium.

The hall of the Olympic Museum of Athens that represents the Panathinaiko Stadium (Kallimarmaro).
The hall of the Olympic Museum of Athens that represents the Panathinaiko Stadium (Kallimarmaro).

Marathon now days

The route of the Marathon was not stable from the beginning, as the first modern marathon runners in Athens ran about 40 kilometers, as in the following races. However, in 1924 the International Olympic Committee established the distance of 42,195 meters, same as the route runners ran from the royal podium to the stadium during the 1908 London Olympics.

The first authentic Athens Marathon, on the classic route, took place on the 2nd of October 1955, although the decision pre-dates 1938. 21 athletes participated (including 12 Greeks) and the winner was Veiko Karvonen from Finland, who finished at 2:27:30.


Katerina Zygouraki

Bibliography and pictures:

"Greek promoters νAthenians Marathon ...", Educational program at the Museum of Marathon, Athens, 2010.

"History of the Ancient Greek World", François Lefèvre

Cover pic: WLM file


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