OLYMPIC GAMES

Why is a marathon called a marathon?

The marathon was one of the original events in the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens- a fitting setting, for this race was inspired by a Greek legend.

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Why is a marathon called a marathon?
KYODO REUTERS

The marathon was one of the original events in the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens- a fitting setting, for this race was inspired by a Greek legend.

It is said that the term “marathon” was coined after Pheidippides, a messenger for the Greek army who had run (without stopping, if legend is to be believed) from the town of Marathon back to Athens, to tell the people of a victory over the Persian army.

Some accounts claim that he discarded his weapons and even his clothes along the way to be able to run faster, then collapsed and died soon after he arrived in Athens to deliver his message.

The distance between Marathon and Athens is about 40 kilometers or nearly 25 miles. To commemorate the messenger’s run, the distance of the 1896 Olympic marathon was set at 40 kilometers.

Why did Pheidippides make this run in the first place? Why the urgency to share the news of the victory?

In one version of the story, he was dispatched simply to deliver the good news. If this were true, it seemed a bit much for a messenger to run naked and jog an absurd distance simply to be able to exclaim, “We have won!” and then die on the spot.

To make some sense of his action, a little more information about the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC is needed, which another version of the story provides.

The Battle of Marathon

In this battle, the Athenian army defeated the invading Persians, despite being heavily outnumbered. Supposedly, as Pheidippides was taking part in the action, he saw a Persian ship changing its course towards Athens as the Greek army was close to victory.

He perceived this to be a strategy by the defeated Persians to go into the Greek capital and claim that they had won. This news would then dishearten the Greeks and the Persians would be able to claim authority over them.

In this case, Pheidippides’ rush to reach Athens would be more understandable.

Multiple marathon myths

There are other versions of the story, saying that the messenger actually ran to Sparta instead to ask for help, or that the distance he covered was much longer.

The exact details can never be known at this point; perhaps the only fact that can be truly verified is the distance between Marathon and Athens. But the accuracy of the legend of Pheidippides is maybe not as important as what the story symbolizes.

The modern marathon simply reflects what the fabled run illustrates- that humans can push their bodies to extreme limits, to places where they might never have gone before.