The Marathon run turns 2,500 in Greece, and Boston

By Jimmy Golen
AP Sports Writer / April 18, 2010

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HOPKINTON, Mass.—With more than a century of history to draw from, there is always another anniversary for the Boston Marathon: record times and close finishes, 10 years since this or 25 years since that, and even its own 100th birthday in 1996 drew what was the largest field in the history of the sport.

But the most important date for a 26.2-mile race -- and perhaps the Western world as a whole -- is 490 B.C., the year of an Athenian victory on the plains of Marathon that gave birth to the namesake race and protected the cradle of democracy from a Persian invasion.

"As my old Latin professor used to say, 'If it weren't for Marathon, it's highly likely we'd all be speaking Farsi,'" said Matthew Gonzales, a classics professor at Saint Anselm College and contributor to a History Channel feature on the battle. "There are very few things you can think of in the modern world, as far as how we define ourselves in the West, that would not be fundamentally different."

It was a crucial, early battle between East and West.

And it happened 2,500 years ago -- on Sept. 11, some historians believe.

Many details are left to speculation due to the intervening millennia, but most historians agree that it was at Marathon where 10,000 Athenians used superior military strategy to defeat a Persians army as much as 10 times larger. After the victory, legend has it, a messenger named Pheidippides was dispatched the roughly 26 miles to Athens to share the news.

He arrived to deliver his message -- "Rejoice, we conquer!" -- and then dropped dead.

The Greeks commemorated the messenger's run with a marathon at the first modern Olympics, in Athens in 1896, and members of the Boston Athletic Association who attended were inspired to begin a local version the next year on a hilly course mimicking the original route from Marathon. As many as 500 marathons are now run each year, and at the Olympics the event has traditionally been honored with a finish in the main stadium on the closing day.

But to the Greeks, the marathon has never been just another sporting event.

All year, they're celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the battle with special ceremonies surrounding the Athens Classic Marathon and at other races around the world.

The tour started at the Greek consulate in Boston last week, where the mayor of Marathon presented B.A.A. officials with gold-painted wreaths -- picked from olive trees in the city of Marathon -- for the winners of the race.

A little more than 26.2 miles away, at the starting line in Marathon's sister city of Hopkinton, local businesses flew Greek flags along with American ones, and lampposts were festooned with banners marking the anniversary. Greek runners -- there are 71 registered in Monday's race, up from three last year -- were put up in local homes and introduced at schools.

"The first spark was Marathon," said Brian Herr, the chairman of the Hopkinton Board of Selectmen, who has run the Boston race 21 years in a row. "As much as this is an athletic event, this is about our freedom."

Only twice has a Greek runner won in Boston, the more recent in 1946 when Stylianos Kyriakides, who had recently survived the Nazi occupation of his homeland, ran to bring attention to the war-torn country.

"How can you beat a guy like that," Boston Marathon patriarch and two-time champion John A. Kelley said after failing to repeat his '45 victory. "He wasn't running for himself, he was doing it for his country."

So was Pheidippides, who was first dispatched to Sparta -- a 140-mile round trip over two days -- to request help in repelling the approaching Persians. The Spartans stalled, saying they were in the middle of a religious festival and could not march until the full moon (a detail that helps historians place the date).

But the Athenians could not wait.

The Persians had already conquered the Middle East and parts of Asia, and a victory in Marathon could have cleared a path through Europe. But the Athenians, breaking convention by putting their stronger soldiers on the flanks, surrounded the Persians and thwarted them.

Democracy in Athens was still a work in progress at the time, incubating less than two decades since the tyrant Peisistratus was overthrown. "The very notion that mass democracy could work was untried," Gonzales said.

"For the West, the most significant thing that came out of Greece long-term was a viable democracy that was at a very fragile stage in 490," he said. "But it also gave us the development of philosophy, and scientific reasoning, and speculative thought. So it was not just democracy in general, but in the broader perspective the Greek world had."