Few sports events integrate the competitive side of sport with the social and playful side of sport like marathon running. This might seem like a strange thing to say about what is such a rigorous and physically challenging event. However, major city marathons attract both serious competitors and less serious runners in the same event, and often generate a citywide party atmosphere leading up to and during the event.
The competitive marathon was introduced as part of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. The purpose of the event was to mimic the ancient Greek Games, despite the fact that no such event was held in ancient Greece. However, according to legend, in 490 BC a Greek soldier ran from Marathon to Athens to take news of a Greek military victory over the Persians. The runner collapsed with exhaustion and died. Interestingly, the first winner of the modern-day Olympic marathon in Athens, Greece, was Spiridon Louys, a Greek runner.
As the twentieth century unfolded, major track and field meets integrated the marathon into their schedules. However, the marathon grew in popularity due mostly to the emergence of several urban-based marathons. Some, notably the Boston Marathon, had been around for decades; however, many new ones emerged, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. The emergence of these popular races coincided with a late-twentieth century boom in the sports and exercise industry. As a result, the sport of running took off.
Also, lasting images from top international competitions began to attract people to marathon running. In the Olympic marathon in 1952, Emil Zatopek won the race after having competed-and also won-in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres races. In 1960 and 1964, Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the marathon, making himself a national hero. Images of Bikila running barefoot in his first victory in 1960 are engrained in most serious marathoners’ minds.
Women entered marathon running in the 1960s and 1970s, although their participation was met with great resistance. While women had run marathons for decades (the first recorded time came in 1926 by Violet Percy), it was Kathy Switzer’s run in the 1967 Boston marathon that was one of the most important symbolic runs for women. In the middle of the marathon, a Boston official spotted Switzer running and tried to yank her off the course. Switzer and fellow supporters resisted, and she went on to finish the race. Switzer’s effort motivated other women to take on marathon running, and the participation rose, although slowly. It was not until 1984 that the women’s marathon was included in the Olympic program.
Today, major city marathons in Boston, New York, London, Berlin, and cities around the world make the race one of the most attractive participatory and spectator amateur sports events in the world.