With a population of less than 35000 people, Marathon is a town in Greece, from where the Olympic event got its name. The town is entrenched in the history as a site of a famous Greek-Persian war of 490 BC. This was a unique war, known as the Battle of Marathon, in which the Greeks were heavily outnumbered as the Persians came in hordes. King Darius I wanted control of Athens, having already won many battles earlier. Greek involvement in the Ionian Revolt of 494 BC irked Darius, who swore to burn down Athens and Eretria. At the time of the battle, Sparta and Athens were the two largest city states and after crushing the Ionian revolt in the Battle of Lade, Darius sent a naval task force under Datis and Artaphernes to make punitive attacks on Athens and Eretrea. The Persians reached marathon in mid-summer after a successful campaign in the Aegean. The Athenians had a small force but they succeeded in blocking the two exits for Darius’s forces from the plain of Marathon. Ordinarily, the Greeks would not have been able to face the superior Persian cavalry but after learning that many Persians were temporarily absent from the camp, the Greek Commander ordered a general attack against Persians and reinforced his flanks. This lured Persians’ best fighters in the center. The tactical move amounted to the Persian’s best soldiers being enveloped by Greeks and in the ensuing panic, large numbers of Persians were slaughtered. The defeat at Marathon marked the end of first Persian invasion of Greece, and Darius’s force retreated to Asia.
From the Battle of Marathon, the Greeks learnt that Persians could be beaten and since the eventual Greek triumph began at Marathon, the town became world-famous. The Athenians also lost 192 of their men and these people were entombed at a place near the battlefield at a place called Soros. To this date, the tombs continue as a remnant of the war and tourists coming to the town of Marathon, make it a point to visit this place, which is now surrounded by a small park. When the battle ended with a Greek victory, a war messenger, named Pheidippides ran all the way to Athens, a distance of nearly 40 kilometers or 24.85 miles from Marathon to Athens to communicate that Greek had won the Battle of Marathon. After announcing the good news to his countryman, Pheidippides collapsed in exhaustion and died.
Therefore, when the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896, a race of 40 kilometers, or 24.85 miles, was held to commemorate the legendary feat of Pheidippides. Since then, marathon in Summer Olympics is the only foot race, which is measured by standard system as against the now prevalent metric system. But how 24.85 miles became 26 miles 385 yards is mired in some kind of historical mystery. The current distance of 26.2 miles appears entirely random and arbitrary rather than being based on some concrete directive. In 1900 the Olympic Games were held in Paris and the marathon distance became 25.02 miles on an arbitrary basis. In St. Luis, USA, where the Games were organized in 1904, the distance was restored to 24.85 miles. In the 1908 London Games, the race distance was decided to suit the personal requirements of the British royal family and not as an adherence to its known history. There are disputes about the exact reasons of changing the marathon distance but it is safe to assume that the race length was completely arbitrary.
For 1908 London Olympics, the start of the marathon was fixed at the East Terrace of the Windsor Castle. As per some historians, members of British Royal Family wanted to see the marathon from the best vantage point and the organizers acceded to the wishes of the monarchy. The race started at just under the window of the Royal Nursery, from where; Princess of Wales watched the start along with her children. The distance of the race thus became completely arbitrary. Some people differ with this story and say that Olympic organizers wanted to control the crowd and the Royal Family’s cooperation was greatly lauded. Finally, the total distance was about 26 miles from Windsor Castle to the Olympic Stadium in West London’s Shepherd’s Bush. As per the original plan, runners were required to enter the stadium at royal entrance that that would have meant covering a total distance of 26 miles and 585 yards. But the plan was changed and the competitors entered from the opposite end of the stadium so that the Queen and her family could have a better view. That made the distance as 26 miles and 385 yards.
Since the 1908 Olympics were held in hot and humid London July, the runners were exhausted at the end of the race. The first runner to enter was an Italian pastry chef called Dorando Pietri. The guy was in a delirium and turned the wrong way on the track. The Italian lost the race in the dying minutes in a controversy despite breasting the tape as the first runner. But the Americans insisted on Pietri’s disqualification since he was helped by local organizers. After US won the argument, John Hayes was declared the winner. Despite being disqualified, Pietri became a hero and Queen Alexandra presented him with a gold cup.
But in 1912’s next Olympic Games at Stockholm, the race distance was changed again to 24.98 miles and again in 1920 at Antwerp the race was run through a distance of 26.56 miles. However after the 1924 Paris Olympics, the marathon was standardized at 26 miles 385 yards or 42.195 meters.