Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The First Modern Marathon

I am having a good time in Ancient Greece at the moment. More specifically, I am having a good time in Robin Waterfield's Athens: A History.

The book was written just before the recent Olympics in Athens in 2004 and uses this fact to set the 'scene' (a Greek word, apparently - first used to describe the painted backdrop on the stage), before going to on to give a fascinating account of the origin and ancient history of the city.

I found the account of the first modern marathon run in 1896 particularly entertaining. The man who came in third, Spyros Belokas, was later disqualified when it was found that he had accepted a lift on a cart for some of the journey. The man who won, Spyros Louis, was a peasant and the rules had to be bent to allow him to take part (other contestants had been members of gentlemen's athletic clubs). As he ran into the stadium the citizens of the recently re-established city of Athens of the recently re-established country of Greece erupted with cheers, flag and hat waving and tears of joy. Two of the Greek princes flanked Spyros for the final 200 metres and then raised the victor onto their soldiers.

In the days that followed, women pressed gifts of gold chains and watches on him, other people offered cash, free meals, free coffee and free haircuts for life, but Spyros Louis refused them all. He also refused to marry a young upper class lady who had recklessly promised her hand to the winner - before the requirement for the contestants to be gentlemen runners had been waived.


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