07/21/2012 01:57 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2012

Faster Athletes, Slower Spectators and the Olympic Marathon

Written by Greg Downey

In 1896, during the first Olympiad of the modern era, Greek Spyridon Louis won the marathon. It was a race of attrition. Seventeen runners had left from the bridge in Marathon bound for Athens; only nine finished. Eight others gave up before Colonel Papadiamantopoulos fired the starting gun.

Two of the early leaders, both winners at shorter distances in the games, had to quit the course. In one case, a French runner was leading at the town of Karvati, so the local villagers awarded him a garland at the "arch of triumph" they had erected. The award proved premature; the hill after Karvati proved to be too much. Louis had been given an alcohol-powered send-off and was fortified by wine and an Easter egg along the way. Villagers ran along with him as he chased down the leaders, and he arrived to pandemonium in the Athens stadium crowded with 50,000 spectators.

In the excitement, two Greek princes joined the winner on his victory lap around the stadium. Louis was hailed as a national hero, especially because so many events in the games had been won by foreign athletes (losing in the discus to an American was particularly painful). Offered the gift of his choice by an exuberant King George I of Greece, Louis asked for a donkey cart to help with his water-carrying business.

Louis' finishing time for the first Olympic marathon was 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds.
As the Olympic torch wends its way to the opening ceremonies in London, the marathon has come a long way. The medalists in the men's race next week will likely cross the line at close to two hours; women, once banned from running the marathon because of their alleged frailty, will not be too far behind. Runners will be vying, not for a donkey cart, but for tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses and many, many more times this in lucrative endorsement deals from shoe companies. Sports fans will sit on the edge of their seats as those who get to the podium may only be separated from those who do not by the narrowest of margins.

And yet, at the same time that the margins between Olympic finishers may be a hair's breadth, the gap between the athletes and the spectator public is growing. Spyridon Louis was a true amateur. His first 'marathon' was his qualifying race, about two weeks prior to his Olympic performance. Today's Olympic contenders are dedicated professionals, physiologically worlds' apart from most of the spectators, who are growing increasingly sedentary.

Sure, the number of amateur participants at marathons is swelling, but on average, marathon runners are going slower. It's very hard to imagine today, especially in the Western world, that someone could run a sub-three-hour marathon in their second attempt, two weeks after their first marathon (even though the races were slightly shorter than today's distance). Instead, many runners in contemporary marathons strive to beat the "Oprah line," clocking less time than it took the talk show host to finish the Marine Corp Marathon: 4 hours, 29 minutes. On average, they will beat the Oprah line, but just barely. Our professional athletes may be faster than ever, but we, as a whole community, are less athletic.

Observers point out that, at the same time that the Olympic movement has become global, so too has a decrease in our bodily movement. The spread of affluence and middle-class lifestyles has led to greater inactivity, even in the developing world, followed predictably by rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The world may love the Olympics, but the audience also grows more sedentary, more likely to watch on television than lead the kind of lifestyle that allowed Louis to finish the arduous Marathon to Athens run.

Humans weren't always so inactive. The skeletons of our pre-modern ancestors, before the industrial age, often have bone development that looks more like professional athletes than couch potatoes. Bones remodel over our lifetime, adapting to heavy dynamic stress by growing denser, with thicker hardened shells. In measures such as left-right asymmetries in the bone density of our forearms, archaeologists can judge how vigorous a person's lifestyle was. Medieval skeletons resemble professional baseball pitchers more closely than today's truck drivers, cell phone salespeople or software designers. Tools routinely used by former generations of workers, such as sledge hammers, were much heavier than their modern equivalent. Only professional athletes lead lifestyles as rigorous as generations before us.

The Olympics have become big business, just as the performances have steadily improved. The games draw audiences that are only rivalled by that other great global sporting phenomenon, the World Cup, and an occasional British royal wedding. Seventeen thousand athletes from 205 countries will be in London. Events will be reported by twenty thousand journalists, and an estimated four billion spectators will tune in to watch the opening ceremonies. According to Sky News, the total cost of the London games -- factoring in everything from security to overtime wages for train operators -- could be $37 billion.

By these measures, the Olympic movement is triumphant. As Richard Pound, former Vice-President of the International Olympic Committee, commented in 2008, the Olympic movement has gone from the "kitchen table" in the days of Louis to "global boardrooms." The five rings of the Olympic symbol, as Pound puts it, is the "stuff of dreams" around the world.

The Olympic Games may be stronger than ever, and world records are liable to tumble in London, but the people watching from home are growing slower, weaker and more sedentary. If the Olympic movement is intended "to encourage and support the development of sport for all," as the Olympic Charter reads, then the movement is in danger of failing, even though the broadcasts are popular. The distance between athletes and spectators is growing greater, and not just because our best athletes are running faster, jumping higher, and getting stronger.

Greg Downey is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He is co-editor, with Daniel Lende, of the forthcoming book, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT Press, due out this month). Greg has done research on capoeira in Brazil, with mixed martial arts fighters in the US, and with rugby players and coaches in Australia. He writes extensively on the relationship between brain and culture, especially skill acquisition, sensory training, and developmental dynamics, on the weblog Neuroanthropology at the Public Library of Science, where he has also placed the sources, links and other resources for this column.