No event symbolises the Olympic Games in Athens more than the marathon, the 42.195km race from the village of Marathon to the Panathenaikó, the marble stadium built as a replica of Olympia for the first modern Games in 1896.
The irony is that the race was never on the ancient Olympic programme. The longest race in antiquity was the dolichos, which comprised 24 laps of the stadium, or about 5,000 metres. The man to blame for the billions of blisters inflicted by the marathon was a French philologist called Michel Bréal. When Pierre Frédy, better known as the Baron de Coubertin, revived the Olympic Games with a seminar at the Sorbonne 110 years ago, he asked his friend, Bréal, if he had any suggestions for the programme. As “killer” ideas go, Bréal’s topped the necropolis.
It was a stroke of genius, built on both legend and myth. The Battle of Marathon in 490BC was a seminal event in the history of western culture. Had the tiny Athenian army lost to the Persian hordes, our civilisation would probably be very different today. Democracy, which had been born in Athens, may not have survived. And for a while, things looked so bad for the Athenians that they despatched a messenger to Sparta to ask their erstwhile Peloponnesian rivals for assistance.
Philippides (Pheidippides) supposedly ran 500km over impossibly rocky terrain, only to have the Spartans refuse to help. But by the time he ran back to Marathon, the battle had been won. He then ran the 40 km to the Agora, the meeting place in Athens, to deliver the news. “Rejoice, we conquer,” he is alleged to have said, then dropped dead.
Since the first account of this epic run across what became Greece only surfaced 600 years later, we can be fairly sure that this is as much a myth as the ones surrounding the Olympian gods. But what a story. And an appropriate one for an event that has built up its own modern myths and legends. Fittingly the first Olympic marathon winner in 1896 was a Greek, Spyros Louis. But the delirium and dropouts on the dusty road behind him underlined the difficulty of the event.
Long before the jogging boom of the last 25 years, the great Emil Zátopek, who won the marathon at the 1952 Games, put it into perspective. “If you want to run,” said the Czech Locomotive, “run a hundred metres. If you want to experience another life, run a marathon”.
For, like the picaresque novel or the road movie, the marathon is a potent metaphor for life’s hard struggle itself. Zátopek ran his first marathon at the 1952 Games in Helsinki. He had already won the 5,000m and 10,000m, but his wife, Dana had won the javelin, and Zátopek joked that the family gold medal contest was “too close”. So “Záta” ran, and won the marathon, and created another piece of Olympic history: the only man to have won all three distance races in a single Games. The Czech duly passed into modern legend, along with a tiny elite, among them two-time Olympic marathon champion Abebe Bikila, four-time world record breaker Jim Peters, and the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon winner, Joan Benoit.
It is this pantheon of “greats” that Paula Radcliffe seeks to join on the evening of August 22. We don’t need to ask the oracle at Delphi her fate; it is in her own hands, and feet.
There would have to be something drastically wrong with Radcliffe for her to lose: because she is (literally) a street or two ahead of her opponents. They cannot even be called rivals. Radcliffe’s world record of 2hrs, 15min 25sec, set in London last year, is more than two minutes better than her closest pursuer, Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, and when the pair met in the marathons of Chicago 2002 and London 2003, Radcliffe won by more than two and four minutes respectively. She has had injury problems this year, but recent runs suggest she is well over them.
The difficulty of the original marathon course should also militate in Radcliffe’s favour. It is on the hills that fitness really tells, whether in cross-country or road running. The reason that it took Radcliffe so long to find success on the track is simply that, on the flat, rivals can cling on longer, and use what Radcliffe signally does not have – a sprint – to win. On the road or the “country”, she shouldn’t need a sprint.
The best example of this facet of her running came in the Great North Run last autumn. Having missed the world championships 10,000m through injury, she slaughtered Paris winner Berhane Adere on the hilly course from Newcastle to South Shields, beating the Ethiopian by nearly two minutes – and that in a half-marathon.
After a flat first 10km, including the detour around the Tomb of the Warriors, the Athens marathon course goes into switchback mode. One of the most unlikely marathon statistics is that, in an age of East African hegemony, the course record is held by Britain’s Bill Adcocks, who ran 2.11.07 in 1969.
In his recently published book, The Road to Athens, Adcocks writes: “The rises were well and truly testing, and at one point (Kenji) Kimihara extended his lead to 100 metres. I dug in, caught him and we went through 30km locked together. Shortly after this, we crested the highest point of the course, still stride for stride. What exhilaration! Here we were, at the apex of the most famous marathon course in the world. Who could fail to be inspired?” Adcocks surged away over the slightly downhill final 10km to win by more than two minutes.
But as Adcocks admits, his race was run in April, when the temperature was below 20ºC. It will be close to double that during the Olympics.
Nikos Polias, the current Greek champion, has run the course a dozen times. “You have to start slowly,” he says,“because you still need to be alive when you get to 30km. You have to be very patient, so that you can take advantage of the last 10km.”
A measure of the course’s difficulty is that Polias’ best time on the Athens course is 2:18:38 against a best time overall of 2:13:53. . “A lot depends on the weather conditions, too,” he advises. “It is good when the wind is coming from the north. When Adcocks ran 2.11.07, I’m told there was a typhoon behind him. I think the best run on this course is Abel Anton's 2.13.06, when he won the world championships title in 1997. The temperature was 36ºC.”
Radcliffe maintains that she deals well with heat, but another British predecessor on this courses claims that the amalgam of temperature and terrain makes it a particularly searching trial. Dave Cannon was one of the favourites for the 1982 European Championships, also held in August. “I had run races in 88ºF and 90ºF [31ºC-33ºC] beforehand, and felt fine, but it’s the humidity in Athens that gets you.
“If the conditions are like that, it will be difficult for her. It’s also easy to misjudge the course, and Radcliffe is tall like me. I’d run 2hr 11mins twice the year before, and set out at 2hr 15mins pace, and even that was too fast. I caught the leaders at halfway, but I never felt good. I ended up finishing thin 2hr 21mins. “When your legs are tired, it doesn’t matter that the last 10km is downhill, you just can’t run.”
For all that, Radcliffe is still expected to win. As one old-timer, who was in the Panethenaikón 35 years ago when Adcocks won, said: “He ran into the stadium looking like a young god.” Well, now it is time for us to welcome home the young goddess.
Pat Butcher is the author of The Perfect Distance: Ovett and Coe – The Record Breaking Rivalry (Orion)