In 490 BC, the Greeks won an important battle against the Persians in the coastal plain of Marathon, north-east of Athens. After the victory of the Greeks, an Athenian ran, as the story goes, in full armour to Athens, a distance of about 42 km. Upon arrival he was so exhausted that, also according to the story, he died on the spot after telling the good news.

More than six centuries after the battle this legend grew and made the achievement even more impressive. By then the unfortunate messenger was identified with Philippides , a messenger who had already run from Athens to Sparta (220 km) before the battle.

At the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, the journey from Marathon to Athens was repeated in the form of a competition. This idea was suggested to Pierre de Coubertin by Michel Bréal, a classical philologist. The contest was won by a Greek, Louis Spiridon. This first marathon has become a permanent event of the modern Olympics and also a sport by itself.

© KU Leuven, 2012