Thursday, 30 April 2009

Return to the Roots of Marathon Running

by Kathryn Hadley

Almost 2,500 years ago, in 490 BC, the Athenian herald Pheidippides (530BC-490BC) ran 26 miles, from the battlefield near the town of Marathon to Athens, to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon. He allegedly delivered his message and thereafter collapsed and died. Despite the debates surrounding the historical accuracy of the legend of Pheidippides, it has inspired countless athletes to take up the challenge. Last Sunday, over 33,000 runners sought to rival Pheidippides in the streets of London and participated in the London Marathon. The marathon became an Olympic event in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. The first London Marathon was held on March 29th, 1981.

The idea of organising a marathon race as an Olympic event was first suggested by the French philologist Michel BrĂ©al (1832-1915) and was immediately supported by the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Pierre de Coubertin, and by the Greeks. The first Olympic Marathon, in 1896, was won by the Greek water-carrier, Spyridon Louis, who ran the race in 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds. The marathon remained a male-only event until 1984, when the first women’s marathon was organised in the summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The event was won by the American athlete Joan Benoit in 2 hours 24 minutes and 52 seconds. The current world record for men was set at the Berlin Marathon in September 2008 by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, who ran the race in 2 hours 3 minutes and 59 seconds. Paula Radcliffe set the world record for women at the London Marathon in April 2003 in 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds.

This year marked the 28th edition of the London Marathon founded by John Disley and Chris Brasher. In 1979, the two men ran the New York Marathon. Upon his return, Brasher described the event in article for The Observer entitled ‘The World’s Most Human Race’:

‘To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous
family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible. Last
Sunday, 11,532 men and women from 40 countries in the world, assisted by over a
million people, laughed, cheered and suffered during the greatest folk festival
the world has seen.’

He concluded the article by questioning:

'whether London could stage such a festival? We have the course, a magnificent
course … but do we have the heart and hospitality to welcome the world?’

Following the publication of the article, in early 1980, the editor of The Observer at the time, Donald Trelford, organised a lunch during which Disley and Brasher met with the relevant authorities who would be involved in organising the marathon in London, including the Greater London Council, the police, the City of London, the Amateur Athletics Association and the London Tourist Board. Although all parties seemed to support the idea, there were two main obstacles to holding a marathon in London. Which route would the race follow and how would it be possible to close off the necessary 26 miles of road without causing too much disruption? How would the race be funded?

Disley, first of all, drew a route which ran along the Thames and would only close down two bridges. The police allegedly approved of the route and the event gained the support of the Tourist Board, which encouraged the fact that the route passed by many of London’s historic sites, including Tower Bridge, the Docks, The Embankment, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Brasher thereafter drew up a budget for the first London marathon with an expenditure of £75,000 over and above any revenue expected from entry fees. The task of raising the necessary funds seemed an impossible feat. Shortly after, however, Gillette gave up their sponsorship of cricket’s Gillette Cup and agreed to become the first sponsor of the London Marathon signing a deal worth £75,000 a year for three years.

The first race was held five months later, on 29 March 1981. 20,000 people signed up to run the race. Only 7,747 entries were accepted, however, and there were 6,255 finishers. The event was hugely successful and the following year the race received over 90,000 applications. Over the past 27 years, from 1981 to 2008, a total of 711,260 runners have completed the London Marathon. John Disley remains chairman of the London Marathon Charitable Trust. Chris Brasher died in February 2003. Entries for the 2009 edition opened on Tuesday!

For further information on the Battle of Marathon and how it is still a byword for endurance, read our article Re-running Marathon

For further information on the Olympics, visit our History of Sport focus page.

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