The Marathon owes its name to a city in Greece. It is from here according to Plutarch’s accounts that a messenger from the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides ran all the way till Athens to announce victory over the Persians and then dramatically die on the spot. Interestingly, the same route was revived during the 2004 Athens Olympics. Though the historical accuracy is debatable, the legend was immortalized as a poem by Robert Browning in 1876.
The Marathon was initiated as a crowd puller for the first Olympics in Athens in 1896. It started off as a male only race with females being introduced in the women’s marathon in Los Angeles in 1984. Since its inception it is traditional for the men’s marathon to be the last event of the athletic’s calendar.
There was no standard distance for the first 7 Olympic Marathons but eventually the distance was fixed at 42.195 km or 26 miles and 385 yards. With the London Olympics 2012, just round the corner, it should be of interest to note that it was the 1908 London Olympics that brought about this fixture as a result of a deviation from the approximate 40 km distance following the original from Marathon to Athens. This deviation was the result of a wish by the then Princess of Wales who wanted her children to see the start. The race was thus moved to the East lawn of Windsor castle adding 2 kms to the planned 40 kms. Moreover, 385 yards were added to the finish line in accordance with Queen Alexandra’s wishes to have the best view, thus making the atheles run on a cinder track right up to and below the Royal Box. Here’s looking at you will get a new twist this time it seems as the route has been chalked out for the atheletes and viewers to get the maximum benefit – passing through all the major London landmarks on the way.
While the Marathon is an event of great significance in the Olympics, recreational runners may also take part in other marathons being held around the globe on an average of 800 marathons per year. The goal then becomes to break one’s previous time barriers or simply to finish under the average time of 4 hours or 3 hours if one is more competitive. Ethical considerations are followed with recreational runners keeping to the side to allow faster runners to pass through the centre.
Preparations for the Olympic Marathon are on in London. While the last Beijing Olympics had Tiananmen Square as the starting point, the London Olympics can wager a promising start at the Mall within sight of Buckingham palace. With the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations still in the air, this addition would undoubtedly come as yet another jewel in the Crown. Past races have been run over both high and low terrain with perhaps China being one of the few countries to boast of diversity and variety in the race. China’s past ventures show both interest and creativity as far as the marathon is concerned. The famed race has been run as ‘The Great Wall of China Marathon” over the Wall itself and through the Tibetan plateau region as “The Great Tibetan Marathon”.
During the last Olympics, the enthusiasm for the games was slightly marred by the environmental concerns, especially the pollution levels and unprecedented smog in Beijing. Haile Gebrselassie from Ethiopia, the men’s marathon world record holder clocking 2 hours 4 minutes and 26 seconds in 2007 backed out then, amidst fears for escalation of his asthma. Similar fears were voiced by other asthmatics including Paula Radcliffe, Britain’s world record holding marathon runner about the pollution, the heat and the humidity. The media’s role had too been paramount in spreading rumours and increasing the hype by publishing news stories and photographs showing the Beijing National Stadium – ‘the Bird’s Nest’, engulfed by smog early in the morning.
This time round, the reports are coming through yet they are staggered at best, while the conditions appear to be no different. London reportedly has been warned by EU for its poor air quality, having the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in the EU as well as dust particles. So far scientists and research students seem to be the strongest voices regarding this aspect of the marathon. It would be interesting to hear from Paula Radcliffe this time round, on her home advantage or disadvantage as the case may be. While Beijing in 2008 shut down the major industries and banned half the city’s transport contributing to the smog, Britain has yet to come up with a similar plan. With health concerns for the atheletes and their optimum performance slowly rising, the British public and the rest of the world wait with bated breath to see what the Marathon brings us all. More controversy or an entertaining finish till Tower Hill.