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A Short History of the Marathon II

Another history lesson?

In our previous blog about the origins of the Marathon, we discovered that this test of human endurance has its roots - like so many other things - in Ancient Greece. But for more than 2000 years this legend remained almost exclusive to scholars of Greek antiquity studying the old writings of Herodotus and Plutarch.

The famous English poet Robert Browning was the first one to bring the story back into spotlight in the year 1879, by writing the poem Pheidippides which - even though historically inaccurate - drew attention once again to our young Greek messenger.

The modern Olympics

In the late 19th century, the idea of a great popular sports event was born and its organizers, above all French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, quickly developed a plan to revive the tradition of the famed competition held in Ancient Greece, the Olympic Games.

The event has been held since approximately 776 B.C. every four years in honour of the Greek Pantheon's most prominent and powerful god, Zeus. Back then it was of quite big importance, also politically, because during that time no wars were to be fought between the city states to ensure safe travels to the athletes arriving at the competition.

The name derives from its mythological origin, the Mount Olympus being the highest mountain in Greece and home to their gods. When the Romans some 1000 years later converted to Christianity, all pagan traditions in their territory - which Greece was a part of - had to be abandoned and from the year 394 C.E. no Olympic Games were being held.

Obviously, the New Olympic Games reinstated in the year 1896 had to be an even bigger event, having athletes from all around the world compete against each other. But just like its predecessor, the first Modern Olympic Games were being held in Greece and - as we are about to find out - it was again a Greek Runner taking the lead.

A national hero

Without any Greek victory in track and field competitions some days into the Games, the Greek public, highly enthusiastic about the event, started to grow impatient and was looking forward to seeing Greek athletes winning a gold medal. The first Marathon race at the Olympics proved to be one of the hardest competitions, with only some of the participants actually making it to the finish line.

Born into a poor family, Greek runner Spyridos Louis was no professional sportsman. In fact, only a few of the competitors at that time were specially trained. From an early age Spyridos helped his father carry mineral water to Athens where they sold it to provide for the family.

While serving in the military his superior acknowledged his running skills and some years later, this talent was remembered and Spyridos was convinced to participate in the Games.

The day of the race he distinguished himself as the fastest runner making it to the end after 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds, a victory that sparked wild celebrations among his countrymen making him a national hero.

Among the gifts he received for his achievement were meetings with royalty and a lifelong free shave at a local barber shop.

Unfortunately, he was not only the first but also the last Greek winner of the Marathon race at the Olympics with African athletes heavily dominating the competition especially in the second half of the 20th century.

But just as Philippides before him, Spyridos became an inspiration for many, contributing to today's popularity of the Marathon.


July 16th - 18th - Ancient Greece Run & Marathon

Run for your Ancient Greece medal. Running was one of the standard Olympic disciplines. Races were measured in-stadium lengths (192 m each).

Of course, like the Greeks, you can run anywhere and not just in the stadium. Register now for your favorite discipline and get your antique medal.

Register now and start running!

Picture 1: Ben Stern via unsplash
Picture 2: Miguel A. Amutio via unsplash
Picture 3: Matt Lee via unsplash
Picture 4: Jonathan Chng via unsplash