A Marathon

The Olympic Games are nearly upon us. My second Olympic blog is about the Marathon.

Ancient Inspiration
The founder of the Olympic Games, Baron de Coubertin, wanted an event that would be a real Olympic highlight. He invented the Marathon to fill that spot. Inspired by the ancient Greek messenger who ran from the Plain of Marathon to Athens after the Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Even though the messenger died of exhaustion, Baron wanted to commemorate him with a run that followed the same route, about 25 miles or 40 km.

The Baron must have been horrified by the second Olympic Marathon, held in St Louis in 1900 which turned into a complete farce. Run over dusty dirt roads, in very hot conditions, there was only one water station for runners over the 25 miles. Runners collapsed from heat exhaustion. One was chased by dogs.

US Fred Lotz  was first to enter the stadium. He didn’t look at all tired. Then another US runner, Tom Hicks, staggered in and collapsed over the finishing line. Just as Fred was being presented with his medal, he admitted that he had hitched a ride in a car for part of the way. Tom was given the medal instead. The reason why he was staggering was soon discovered. He had taken Strychnine to improve his performance. A lethal poison in high doses, small amounts are a stimulative. There were no rules about drug use back then. So he was not disqualified and is still listed as the winner.

Royal Privilege
The Marathon was firmly established as a highlight of the Games by the  1908 London Olympics. The race was started by the then Princess of Wales (soon to become Queen Mary). For her convenience, the length of the marathon was extended by a mile so that she could start the race from Windsor Castle. It was then extended another 385 yards so that 11-year-old Princess Mary could watch from the window of the royal nursery. Strangely, the length didn’t revert to 26 miles after that and the length of the marathon is still 26 miles 385 yards.

There was more marathon drama in 1908 when the first runner, Italian Dorando Pietri, entered the stadium. Exhausted and disorientated he ran in the wrong direction, staggered and collapsed. Officials helped him up and pointed him in the right direction. He collapsed another four times and officials actually helped him over the finishing line. The runner who came in second, American Johnny Hayes, protested and the Italian runner was disqualified.

Just to complete the quirky Britishness of this marathon, one of those officials helping the Italian runner was believed to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Women’s Marathon Marathon
Unbelievably it wasn’t until 1984 that women were permitted to have a marathon event in the Olympics. It had taken nearly 90 years for female athletes to convince the IOC that long-distance races would not harm women’s health. American Joan Benoit, running less than two weeks after knee surgery, was the first woman to win an Olympic Marathon.

The Games: the extraordinary history of the Modern Olympics. For more about the history of the Olympics.

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