History of Marathons
Although the modern Marathon can attribute its origins to ancient Greek legend, contrary to popular belief it was never included in the ancient Olympics, in which races did not exceed 5 km. However, the Marathon run has been a key event in the modern Olympics since they began in Athens in 1896, and since then has burgeoned in popularity to become a mass participation event held regularly in cities all over the globe.
The revival of the Olympic Games in Athens in the late nineteenth century was due largely to the efforts of Pierre de Coubertin, a French Baron who saw sport as a means of strengthening France’s national character, following its embarrassing defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. De Coubertin established the International Olympic Committee, based at the Sorbonne.
While de Coubertin played a leading role in establishing the modern Olympics, it was historian Michel Bréal who proposed the inclusion of a long-distance marathon. Bréal suggested that the run should be included in the Games to commemorate the Greek soldier Pheidippides, who ran all the way from the town of Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. to announce the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks in battle, before dropping dead of exhaustion. Although there is no evidence that this incident ever really occurred, it was widely believed in the 19th century, and when Bréal suggested including a 40km run in the Olympics, following Pheidippides’ original route, this appealed greatly to Greek national pride, and no doubt contributed to the massive support of the Greek authorities and royal family for the Olympics and the Marathon run.
In fact, the first long distance Marathon was actually held a month before the Athens games, on March 10, 1896. The first of two trials to pick Greek participants for the Olympics, this was won by G. Grigorou with a time of 3 hours, 45 minutes.
Greek runners accounted for 13 of the 17 participants in the first official Olympic marathon, held on April 10, 1896, and consisting of a 40km run from Marathon Bridge to the marble Olympic stadium in Athens. Scheduled to be the final event of the Olympics, this set a precedent for its timing in subsequent Olympic Games. The first Olympic Marathon was won by a 24 year-old peasant boy, Spiridon Louis, a messenger in the Greek army, with a time of 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds. The non-Greek competitors in this race were the Australian Edwin Flack, the American Arthur Blake, the French Albin Lermusiaux and the Hungarian Gyulu Kellner.
Observing the popularity of the first Olympic Marathon with spectators, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), which had participated in the Athens Olympics, organized the first Boston Marathon, covering a distance of 24.5 miles, which was held on March 15, 1897 and annually thereafter.
Although the World Wars of the Twentieth Century hindered the expanding popularity of marathons, a number of prominent annual events were established after the Second World War. Japan established the Fukuoka Marathon in 1947, the Twente Marathon was first held in the Netherlands in 1948 and the Athens Marathon was revived in 1955. At this time, most were based on a distance of 40km or 25 miles. The adoption of 26.2 miles as the official Olympic marathon distance has its origins in the 1908 Olympic Games held in London. The reason for extending the distance by two miles was reportedly to enable the race, which took place between Windsor Castle and White City Stadium, to end right in front of the royal box. Since 1924 this has been used as the official marathon distance.
Mass-participation marathons really took off in popularity in the latter decades of the twentieth century, largely reflecting an increase in popular interest in fitness and jogging from the 1960s onwards. The inaugural New York City Marathon was held in 1970 and consisted of a number of laps of Central Park. In 1976, coinciding with the American Bicentennial celebrations, the New York City Marathon was moved out into the city itself, setting a precedent for marathons to be held in city streets around the world. The New York City Marathon has grown from only 127 runners in 1970 to become the largest marathon in the world, which now has limited participation and a regular full capacity of 37,000 runners.
The annual London Marathon was held in 1981 with 7,747 runners, and soon rivalled New York in levels of participation, reaching a full capacity of 35,000 in recent years. A unique feature of the London marathon is the very high proportion of runners who participate to raise money for charity, making it one of the biggest fund-raising events in the world.
Until the 1970s, many Marathons were only open to male runners, and the first Olympic Women’s Marathon was held in Los Angeles in 1984.
Eight women and four men can claim more than one marathon world record, including James Peters who set four records between 1952 and 1954; the Ethiopian barefoot runner Abebe Bikila who set world records in 1960 1964; Greta Weitz with four record times between 1978 and 1983, and Paula Radcliffe, who holds the current women’s world marathon record of 2 hours, 15 minutes and 25 seconds. The men’s current world marathon record was set at 2 hours, 4 minutes and 26 seconds by Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie at the 2007 Berlin Marathon.
In 2006 the World Marathon Majors competition was established, with cash bonus prizes for those runners who achieved the most points in the Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London and New York marathons over a two-year period.