Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Strange Distance

I've just picked up a copy of the London Marathon's official magazine from the London Marathon Store and learned a bit about the history of the great race. Some of this I knew, but other parts I didn't know.

The "official" marathon distance of 26 miles 385 yards wasn't established until the 1908 London Olympics. Early versions of the race (the first-ever race called by the name "marathon" was the national selection race held by the Greeks for the 1896 Olympics) ran variable distances, but were roughly set around 24 miles, equal to the distance that the Greek warrior Pheidippides ran from the battleground at Marathon to Athens. Indeed, early versions of the Boston Marathon were run from Natick, closer to Boston's downtown than today's start line in Hopkinton. For the 1908 games, the start line was set at Windsor Castle, and the finish at the Olympic Stadium in Shepherd's Bush, West London, a distance of about 25 miles. Organizers planned the start at a grand entrance boulevard to Windsor, but the Princess of Wales (later Queen Mary, wife of George V) thought it would be a lovely idea for the royal children to be able to see the start of the race. So the start line was planned for the east lawn of the castle, extending the race to 26 miles. Then, Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII, decided she should have the best view of the finish, so an extra 385 yards was added on the track inside the stadium to a finish line beneath the royal box. Thus, a distance was born. As a walking guide said to Mrs. Werbenmanjensen, "In England, we do things once. If it goes well, we continue to do it, and it becomes a tradition." Likewise, Wikipedia tells us, an event called the London Polytechnic Marathon came to be at the 26 mile, 385 yard distance, and as a result of its prestige, the International Amateur Athletics Federation adopted it as the official distance in 1921.

Now about that 1908 Olympic marathon: An Italian runner named Dorando Pietri staggered into the stadium in first place. He fell five times in the 385 yards to the finish line, but each time rose to his feet to the cheers of the crowd, and crossed the line first. An American named Johnny Hayes, crossed the line in second without the Italiante drama, then protested because Pietri had been helped to his feet. Pietri was disqualified, and Hayes awarded the gold medal. Queen Alexandra, impressed by Pietri's bravery, gave Pietri a gold cup. Dorando is remembered in Shepherd's Bush ...

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... with a street named for him on the site of what used to be the Olympic Stadium, now a BBC broadcast center. And there is an athletics stadium nearby, named for British sprinter Linford Christie.

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Blogger oldest kid said...

What an interesting story! I kind of wish it was still set at 24 miles....

3:59 PM  

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