THE BLOG

In Quest of the Olympic Spirit: The Marathon

08/12/2012 02:56 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2012

The 'marathon' is one of the largest urban events a city can experience.

It necessitates the involvement of the municipality of the hosting city and the active participation of the communities through which the race courses. As more and more people want to participate in the experience of testing their endurance by making it to the finish line attendance in the various marathons keeps on climbing geometrically. More and more cities offer 'marathons' attracting thousands of visitors. In fact, a 'marathon' is one of the best ways for a city to showcase its profile. As people run past the various landmarks located along the way, they associate them subconsciously with their effort.

It is therefore very important for any city to select the landmark especially the one that will define the last mile. For it is at that point in the race that the runner, realizing that he is approaching the finish line becomes euphoric. In New York after crossing the five boroughs, the final stretch offers the view of the Manhattan skyline from Central Park featuring in so many films. In Los Angeles, the last mile aside from being a downhill slope, offers dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean. Berlin (the marathon with the fastest records) is the only marathon on record that crossed the border of two countries. In 1990, the race was scheduled three days before the date fixed for the re-unification of the two Germanys. The organizers decided to reroute the race and have it cross the Brandenburg Gate, symbol of the Cold War and part of the Wall that divided the two cities. This was also the only marathon race when runners approaching the monument would slow down intentionally or even stop for a few moments of tearful contemplation before moving on. It was also the first time in 2.500 years that several people called out in Greek Phidippides' 'Nenikikamen!' reviving the historical meaning of this race. The Brandenburg Gate has ever since become the Berlin finish line.

The Athens marathon retraces the original route and is therefore an emotionally charged race. Any marathon runner has to follow Phidippides' route at least once in a lifetime. Its last mile offers a panoramic view. The greatest outcome of the victorious battle: the Parthenon (itself the symbol of world democracy).

London route will be spreading along the river Thames offering views of the most famous monuments of the city. It is the first 'marathon' that will not end in the Olympic Stadium. For London's final landmark will be nothing less than the greatest bastion of Britishness, the place where red-coated guards, 'queen and country' come together: Buckingham Palace.

The final stretch of the Olympic Games 'marathon' is the runner's entrance in the Olympic Stadium with a last lap until the finish line. When Spyridon Louis entered the Athens stadium alone in 1896, pandemonium erupted before he even made it to the finish line and Louis entered history giving his name to streets around several of the Olympic stadiums. Indeed, the modern Olympics had given birth to an event that could rival its classical counterparts. This "Hollywood entrance" became one of the aspirations of every marathon runner. These are a few of the legendary entrances:

Berlin 1936: Sohn Kee-Chung whose victory was immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl's film, showing the athlete chasing his shadow on the tarmac while a symphonic orchestra score launches him in a Wagnerian dimension. Being Korean, he was forced to compete with the Japanese team. On the podium he lowered his head in protest of his country's occupation by Japan while the Japanese anthem played on. In the 1988 Seoul games he carried the Olympic flame in the stadium of the Korean capital, creating one of the most memorable uproars in Olympic History.

"Za-to-pek, za-to-pek" was the joyous rhythmic cry of thousands of attendants at Helsinki (1952) greeting the entrance of the legendary athlete in the stadium. He had won the gold both in the 5.000 and 10.000-meter races that same week and decided to enter the marathon on impulse, despite never having attempted the distance again. A national hero in Czechoslovakia, he was degraded by the government for supporting the Prague Spring Rising . The Czechs never forgave their leaders for this and when the Iron Curtain fell, it was to Zatopek that they turned for guidance.

Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia ran in bare feet on the cobbled streets of Rome 1960 breaking the world record. By winning the gold medal in the capital of the empire that had invaded his country 30 years before, he succeeded where Hannibal had failed: he became the first African to conquer Rome. To this day he is the only marathon runner winning two gold medals. An icon to his people, he devoted his life to the encouragement of young athletes , thus paving the way for the monopolizing of long-distance races by African runners.

There were three medalists in today's 'marathon.' Yet all those young people who competed experienced something that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. And as they raced by the people cheering from the sidelines, passing by a London window or appearing on our television set half-way around the world, they have awakened in all of us the Spirit of the Olympic Games. That same Spirit that people have been feeling ever since the first 'marathon' in the countryside of Athens: we're all interactive, smaller parts of a larger whole.