It was the battle that inspired Lord Byron to dream that “Greece might still be free,” and 2,500 years on Greeks hope the defeat of the Persians at Marathon will serve another, more modern purpose: saving the country from insolvency.
As a record number of athletes yesterday marked the landmark anniversary, gathering in the Greek capital to run the 38.6km course that legend records was covered by Phidippides, the Athenian foot soldier, the socialist government is pulling out all the stops.
“Our hope is that this will herald the start of an international movement,” said Nicolas Kanellopoulos, head of the Greek Tourism Organization.
Rarely has an event been celebrated with such enthusiasm. In a bid to address the very modern affliction of debt and budget deficit, the cash-strapped Greeks have cashed in on the prowess of their ancient forebears as never before.
Coins have been minted, statues unveiled, live concerts mounted and exhibitions held as officials have showcased the fight.
Never mind that the prize money is minimal — at 1.5 million euros (US$2.08 million), the winner’s takings fall far short of the prize to be had in Boston and Berlin. Or that, in sharp contrast to modern marathons (whose 42km length was introduced in 1908), the long-distance run will be an uphill struggle fought out for the most part through urban sprawl on a four-lane highway.
For Greek officials, the anniversary has provided an unparalleled opportunity to promote the country — even if cutbacks have meant that elite marathoners are also thin on the ground.
“Every marathon runner dreams of running the classic course,” Kannellopoulos said. “The benefits for tourism are already being seen. We estimate that the city of Athens stands to gain as much as 25 million euros from the race.”
More than 12,500 athletes will compete in the marathon.
US-born Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is believed to be among the participants.
However, after spending most of his year in office striving to keep bankruptcy at bay, he will not run all of the course. Perhaps wary of the fate assigned to Phidippides by the poet Robert Browning — who wrote that the exhausted messenger died on the spot after running from Marathon to proclaim the Athenian victory — he will run one-third of the course.