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History of the Olympic Marathon

The name marathon comes from the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger. The legend states that he was sent from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the battle of Marathon. It is said that he ran the entire distance without stopping and burst into the assembly, exclaiming "We have won" before collapsing and dying.

When the idea of a modern Olympics became a reality at the end of the 19th century, the initiators and organizers were looking for a great popularizing event, recalling the ancient glory of Greece. The idea of organizing a marathon race came from Michel Bréal, who wanted the event to feature in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens. This idea was heavily supported by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, as well as the Greeks. The Greeks staged a selection race for the Olympic marathon, and this first marathon was won by Charilaos Vasilakos in 3 hours and 18 minutes.

The length of a marathon was not fixed at first, since the only important factor was that all athletes competed on the same course. The marathon races in the first few Olympic Games were not of a set length, but were approximately 40 kilometers, roughly the distance from Marathon to Athens by the longer, flatter route. The exact length of the Olympic marathon varied depending on the route established for each venue.

The standard distance for the marathon race was determined by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) in 1921 (Rule 240 of their Competition Rules), at a distance of 26 miles 385 yards, or 42.195 kilometers. This seemingly arbitrary distance was that adopted for the marathon at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London. Contrary to popular stories, the British Royal Family had no direct influence on the distance. At a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in The Hague in May 1907 it was agreed with the British Olympic Association that the 1908 Olympics would include a marathon of about 25 miles or 40 kilometres. In November 1907 a route of about that distance was published in the newspapers, starting at Windsor Castle and finishing at the Olympic Stadium. There were protests about the final few miles because of tram-lines and cobbles, so the route was revised to cross the rough ground of Wormwood Scrubs. This lengthened the route, as did plans to make the start 700 yards from Queen Victoria's statue by Windsor Castle, and it was decided to fix the distance at 26 miles to the stadium, plus a lap of the track (586 yards, 2 feet), using the Royal Entrance as the marathon tunnel, and finishing in front of the Royal Box. For the official Trial Marathon on 25 April 1908, organized by the Polytechnic Harriers, the start was on "The Long Walk", a magnificent avenue leading up to Windsor Castle in the grounds of Windsor Great Park. For the Olympic Marathon itself the start was on the private East Terrace of Windsor Castle, with the permission of King Edward VII, so that the public would not interfere with the start. The Princess of Wales and her children drove from their home at Frogmore on the far side of Windsor Great Park to watch the start of the race. Shortly before the Games opened it was realized that the Royal Entrance could not be used as the marathon entrance, as it was raised to permit easy descent by the royal party from their carriages, and did not open onto the track, so an alternative entrance was chosen, diagonally opposite the Royal Box. A special path was made just outside the Franco British Exhibition ground so that the distance to the stadium remained 26 miles. The finishing line was left unchanged, but in order that the spectators, including Queen Alexandra, could have the best view of the final yards, the direction of running was changed to "right-hand inside" (i.e. clockwise). This meant the distance in the stadium was shortened to 385 yards, and the total distance became 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 kilometers).

For the next Olympics in 1912, the length was changed to 40.2 kilometers (24.98 miles), and changed again to 42.75 kilometers (26.56 miles) for the 1920 Olympics, until it was fixed at the 1908 distance for the 1924 Olympics. In fact, of the first seven Olympic Games, there were six different marathon distances between 40 and 42.75 kilometers (40 kilometers being used twice). However, the dramatic finish of the 1908 Olympic marathon led to worldwide marathon fever. In a postcard sent at the time, an American spectator said he had "just seen the greatest race of the century." The huge crowd, including Queen Alexandra, watched as the Italian marathoner, Dorando Pietri, staggered round the final 385 yards, falling several times, and eventually being propelled by officials over the line as Irish-American Johnny Hayes got ever closer. Dorando was disqualified and Hayes was awarded the gold medal. However, Queen Alexandra was so moved by his plight that the very next day she presented Dorando with a silver-gilt cup. Dorando and Hayes both turned professional and there were several re-matches, which had of course to be over the 26 miles 385 yards. Many other marathons were also held at that distance, including the important "Polytechnic Marathon". The IAAF minutes are reportedly silent as to the reason the 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 kilometers) was chosen in 1921, so any conclusion must be speculative, but emotional attachment to the distance of the "race of the century" was clearly strong.

The 42.195 km and 26 miles 385 yards distances are identical to within half an inch (1.2 centimeters).

Since the modern games were founded, it has become a tradition for the men's Olympic marathon to be the last event of the athletics calendar with a finish inside the Olympic stadium, often within hours of, or even incorporated into, the closing ceremonies. The marathon of the 2004 Summer Olympics revived the traditional route from Marathon to Athens ending at Panathinaiko Stadium, the venue for the 1896 Summer Olympics.

The women's marathon was introduced only at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.


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