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Marathon History

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February 11, 2004 19:35 IST

The idea of the marathon was inspired by the legend of Pheidippides, a professional runner who is believed to have carried the news of the Greek victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. On arriving in Athens, Pheidippides shouted, "Rejoice, we conquer!" and then dropped dead of exhaustion.

The fifth century BC historian Herodotus, while writing about the Battle the Marathon made no mention of Pheidippides' feat and there is no evidence that the dramatic incident ever took place. In fact, the story didn't appear in print until the second century AD, over 600 years after it was alleged to have occurred.

But in 1894, when an international revival of the Olympics was being discussed, French linguist and historian Michel Breal suggested the inclusion of a long-distance race of 40 kms (24.8 miles). Invoking the legend of Pheidippides, Breal and Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, presented the idea to the Organizing Committee of the Athens Olympics. The Greeks immediately agreed to it and got cracking.

On April 10, 1896 the first Olympic marathon was held from Marathon Bridge to the stadium in Athens. 17 runners took part and best of them was a 24-year-old named Spiridon Louis, a shepherd boy who served in the army as a messenger.

Running with shoes donated by his fellow villagers, Louis took the lead four kilometres from the Panathenaic Stadium and won the race in 2:58.50 seconds, more than seven minutes ahead of second-placed countryman Chanilaos Vasilakos.

Since then, many athletes, like Emil Zátopek, Ethiopian  Abebe Bikila and Joan Benoit Samuelson, who earned her place in history as winner of the first Olympic women's marathon in 1984, were inspired by Louis to run the 42.195 kms course.