With a population of less than 35000 people, Marathon is actually a town in Greece, from where the Olympic event got its name. The town is entrenched in history as a site of famous Greek-Persian war of 490 BC. This was a unique war, known as the Battle of Marathon, where Greeks were heavily outnumbered by Persian soldiers coming in hordes. King Darius-I wanted control of Athens, having already won many battles earlier. Greek involvement in the Ionian Revolt of 494 BC had irked Darius, who swore to burn down Athens and Eretria. At that time, Sparta and Athens were 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 Eretria. 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 plains 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 best Persian 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 forces 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. Even today, the tombs continue as war remnants and tourists coming to Marathon, make it a point to visit this place. When the battle ended with 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 Greece had won the Battle of Marathon. After announcing the good news to his countryman, Pheidippides collapsed in exhaustion and died.
When 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 measured by standard system, as against the now prevalent metric system. But how 24.85 miles later became 26 miles 385 yards is mired in some kind of historical mystery. The current distance of 26 miles 385 yards appears entirely random and arbitrary rather than being based on some concrete directive. The 1900 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 once again restored to 24.85 miles. In 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.
As per historians, the start of the marathon in London Olympics was fixed at the East Terrace of the Windsor Castle so that members of British Royal Family could have the best vantage point. The runners started from just under the window of Royal Nursery, from where Princess of Wales watched the start along with her children. The distance of the race thus became completely arbitrary. Since the race was to end at the Royal Entrance of the Olympic Stadium in West London’s Shepherd’s Bush, the total distance worked out to 26 miles 585 yards. But the original plan was changed at the last minute and runners were asked to enter the stadium from the opposite end 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 July, 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. He was helped by organizers, who pointed the right way to him. Though Pietri breasted the tape first, the Americans insisted on his disqualification since he was helped by 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.
In Stockholm’s 1912 Olympics, the race distance was changed again to 24.98 miles. World War-I prevented the 1916 Games but in 1920 Antwerp Olympics, the distance became 26.56 miles. However after the 1924 Paris Olympics, the marathon distance was standardized at 26 miles 385 yards or 42.195 kilometers. This was the same distance that runners had covered in 1908 London Games.