A brief history of marathons

The London Marathon is one of hundreds of marathons that take place every year throughout the world. For much of its existence, though, the marathon was limited to elite runners and thus held a certain mystique for the public. How did its status and perception change? Here, Dr Neil Carter investigates…

The runners at the two mile mark at the back of Greenwich Park.

Contrary to the popular belief that it has its antecedents in the Classical World, the marathon is actually a comparatively modern invention. While the Ancient Olympics can be dated back to 776 BC, there is no evidence of a 26-mile foot race ever taking place. The marathon was, however, included in the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.


In Britain there had been a tradition of long-distance races and endurance challenges. However, the marathon had been the idea of Michel Breal, a Frenchman and student of Greek mythology. The study of Ancient Greece was prominent in the education of Western elites and Breal’s idea sprung from the legend of the Athenian courier Pheidippides, who in 490 BC ran from the site of the battle of Marathon to Athens with the message of ‘Nike’ (‘Victory’). He then promptly collapsed and died.

Whatever the veracity of this legend, 17 runners lined up on 10 April 1896 for the first Olympic marathon from Marathon to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens – a distance of 40 kms. (The Greeks had actually held two trials over the course and distance in the month beforehand). The race was won by a local named Spiridon Louis and resulted in much national rejoicing in Greece. Following the success and drama of the first race, the marathon quickly established itself as the Olympics’ most anticipated event, its Blue Riband.


Image depicting Spiridon Louis winning the first Olympic marathon, at the Athens Olympics, April 1896. (Photo by HultonArchive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

Its reputation was cemented at the 1908 London Olympics, still probably the most famous marathon ever run. First into the stadium had been the Italian Dorando Pietri, but he collapsed near the finish and was helped over the line by a British official. The second-placed runner, an American named Johnny Hayes, protested and was awarded the race. But the public’s sympathy was with Pietri, who received a special medal from the queen.

These early Olympic marathons helped to establish the popularity of the event. In 1897 the Boston Marathon – the oldest annual marathon – was first held and in Britain the Polytechnic Marathon was founded in 1909.

While the Olympics were restricted to amateurs, professional marathons were also staged, some indoors. Pietri turned professional after the London games and in November 1908 he won a re-match against Hayes at Madison Square Gardens. In December 1909 Pietri ran against the Briton CW Gardiner in the Royal Albert Hall over a track that, at 19 laps to the mile, measured out at a head-spinning 524 laps for the marathon distance. The craze for indoor marathons soon passed, however, and attention again switched to the Olympics.


Dorando Pietri being helped over the line by a British official at the 1908 London Olympics. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mass participation

But by the 1980s, instead of sporting excellence, the marathon had come to symbolise mass participation. Starting with New York in 1970, the era of the ‘big city’ marathon began, which catered for all types of runners. During the 1960s a jogging boom had emerged, initially in the USA and then in Europe. With its low-tech requirements and health benefits jogging reflected anti-modernity sentiments, which were loosely based on the counter-culture and a growing concern for the environment. A ‘Sport for All’ message had also been promoted by European governments as part of wider health education campaigns.

The first New York marathon in 1970 saw 127 entrants and in 1979 there were 11,500. In 2015 there were 50,000. One of the entrants in the 1979 marathon was former British athlete Chris Brasher. Inspired by his experience he, along with Welsh athlete John Disley, resolved to stage one in London. In 1981 the first London marathon was held, with 7,055 runners.


Competitors pass the Tower of London during the first London Marathon, held in 1981. (Photo by Allsport UK/Allsport)

Today demand vastly exceeds supply – there were nearly 250,000 applicants for the London 2016 event. According to marathonguide.com, in 2010 there were 483 marathons run in the USA alone, while outside America there were more than 500 marathons run across the globe from Greenland to Antarctica in 2015.


Ladies who lap

If one social group more than any other has come to embody the modern day marathon, it is women. The marathon has not only provided a mirror for the development of women’s sport during the 20th century, but it has also provided a visible expression of female liberation. The London Marathon’s most celebrated runner, for example, is women’s world record holder Paula Radcliffe; a title she achieved on the course in 2003.

Initially, women were banned from marathons. Contemporary medical thinking on the limitations of the female body’s athletic capabilities combined with ideas of a woman’s role in society and opposition from male-dominated sporting bodies inhibited and restricted female participation in sport more generally.

Early female marathon appearances were fitful. At least one woman, Stamata Revithi, ran the original marathon course in 1896, although on her own initiative and not in the actual race, while a British athlete, Violet Piercy, ran the route of the Polytechnic Marathon in 1926. However, it was not until 1984 that the first women’s Olympic marathon was held, in Los Angeles.


Joan Benoit wins the gold medal at the first women’s Olympic marathon, held in Los Angeles in 1984. (Photo by Joe Kennedy/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In the 1960s, the female presence in marathon running became more conspicuous. At the 1966 Boston Marathon Roberta Gibb, as a non-entrant, managed to run to the finish. The following year Kathy Switzer, a 19-year old journalism student, became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry. To hide her gender she entered the race as K. Switzer.


In a well-reported incident she was spotted by an official who tried to block her, but she completed the course nevertheless.

ASHLAND, MA - APRIL 19: Kathy Switzer roughed up by Jock Semple during Boston Mararthon. (Photo by Paul J. Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

An official tries to block Kathy Switzer at the 1967 Boston Marathon. (Photo by Paul J Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The New York marathon was the first to permit female runners from its inception. Other races soon followed, but numbers were initially low. At London’s inaugural race 300 women made up only 4.25 per cent of the field. By 2015, according to runrepeat.com, the proportion of women running in British marathons was 33.9 per cent. The least gender imbalance was in North America where, in 2015, women made up around 45 per cent of the fields. The passing of Title IX in 1972, which outlawed discrimination in American educational institutes, was a significant factor in this surge in female runners.

No longer the preserve of elite athletes, today the marathon is largely associated with the personal challenge – an opportunity for people to test their character as well as their fitness. Moreover, its global popularity continues to increase along with participation levels, and the importance of the marathon as major sporting and cultural event was given extra poignancy with the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013. More significantly, though, was the event’s continuation the following year, reinforcing its place in both national and global culture.

Dr Neil Carter is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is the author of numerous publications including Medicine, Sport and the Body: A Historical Perspective (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012).