Stretching the limits

If sport is about character, the marathon enjoys a mystique all its own, its exponents spending long hours in isolation, pain, patience and persistence, writes A. Joseph Antony.

Almost everything classic in civilisation can be traced to Greece, be it the good looks of its gods and goddesses, the grandeur of its monuments that have withstood the ravages of time or simply its traditions that have survived the centuries. One of its lasting legacies has been the mostly widely watched, if not the greatest spectacle in sport, the Olympic Games.

Endurance encompasses the Olympics’ Latin motif traits of Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger) and much more.

If sport is about character, the marathon enjoys a mystique all its own, its exponents spending long hours in isolation, pain, patience and persistence. One such solitary run has become the stuff of legend and continues to inspire, more than two millennia later.

A 20,000-strong Persian army led by King Darius I was heading for Athens in 490 BC. According to apocryphal accounts, Pheidippides was sent to Sparta to obtain help. The two days and two nights he traversed the 150 miles to Sparta were in vain, for that state refused to assist Athens. On his return, Pheidippides plunged headlong into battle. The Athenians, numbering just half as many as their adversaries, took the Persians by surprise, charging downhill to a small seaside plain called Marathon, 26 miles northeast of Athens.

After the Greek city-state’s valiant victory, Pheidippides again made the best use of his badly bleeding and fatigued feet. Bursting into the city, he gasped out the good news and collapsed dead. Sadly, he didn’t live to savour the celebrations which followed that heartening triumph. Ironically, the ancient Olympics may not have given Pheidippides his due but the founding fathers of the modern games righted that wrong, setting the distance for the marathon at 26 miles as a tribute to his epic feat. It was only fitting that his compatriot won the first such race in 1896.

Spyridon Louis, a 24-year-old shepherd, became the hero of the Athens Games because the Greeks wanted to win this latter day sports battle more than any other due to its historical import. Quite appropriately, the marathon made its start from Marathon.

Sporting shoes donated by his fellow villagers, Louis left Marathon with 16 other runners. Four kilometres from the Panathenaic Stadium, he moved to the fore. The joy he brought to the 100,000 spectators in and around the venue when he finished first, seven minutes ahead of his nearest rival, would have matched that evoked by Pheidippides’ glad tidings centuries ago.

“That hour was something unimaginable and it still appears to me in my memory like a dream… Twigs and flowers were raining down on me. Everybody was calling out my name and throwing their hats in the air,” Louis would reminisce for decades to come.

A modification was made to the marathon at the 1908 London Games. It was lengthened by an additional 385 yards so that the race started under the window of the nursery at Windsor Castle and finished in front of the stadium’s Royal Box. The new distance of 42.195 km, thus, became the official distance of a marathon.

This edition would remain forever etched in public memory for another great effort. Dorando Pietri entered the stadium first towards the completion of the marathon. Exhausted, he collapsed.

Empathetic officials helped him regain his composure but he flopped down again, before being helped over the finish line. While there was no dispute that he crossed the line first, he was disqualified for receiving help but continues to live on in Olympic lore.

While the gallery of greats in marathon is magnificent, a little-known Korean left a lasting mark. By clocking 2:26.42 hours, Sohn Kee Chung set a world record in 1935. Despite this deed, he had to qualify for the nation that had occupied his own — Japan.

Along with compatriot Nam Seung-yong, Chung made the grade. Both the young men were forcibly given Japanese names — Chung’s was changed to Son Kitei. A die-hard patriot, Chung always signed his Korean name at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When asked where he hailed from, he took pains to explain that Korea was a nation by itself.

The then reigning marathon champion, Argentina’s Juan Carlos Zabala broke away to an early lead, followed by Britain’s Ernie Harper and Chung, who ran together. Harper and Chung left Zabala in their wake after 28 kms. Before long, Chung changed gears and won, over two minutes ahead of Harper. Nam came in third.

When the Japanese flag was raised and its anthem played, Chung and Nam bowed their heads in silent protest. “The human body can do so much. Then the heart and spirit must take over,” reasoned Chung after the triumph.

Chung, popularly known as Sohn, became an overnight hero, but Korea’s imperial rulers weren’t exactly pleased. When the Dong-a-Ilbo newspaper mastered a wire service photograph of Sohn, by painting over the Japanese flag on his vest, the colonial government jailed eight persons linked to the incident and suspended its circulation for nine months!

From a flag bearer in 1948, where Sohn led a now independent Korean nation’s contingent to the London Olympics, he was made a torch bearer at the 1988 Seoul Games. All of South Korea was moved to tears when the 76-year-old entered the stadium with the Olympic torch. Not much later, the septuagenarian leapt about with joy like a frisky lamb, swelling with pride for himself and his nation.