The marathon & Olympic movement on Huffington Post

Many people think they know the story of the very first ‘marathon.’ Pheidippides, reputedly the fastest man in the Greek army, allegedly ran from the battlefield at Marathon twenty-five miles to Athens in 490 BCE to announce a Greek victory over the invading Persians. Bolting into the Athenian assembly, he shouted, νικωμεν (nikomen), ‘We have won!’ and promptly keeled over dead.

Phidippides by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Herodotus mentions Pheidippides, but nothing about the untimely death. Robert Browning retold the story in his poem, ‘Pheidippides’ (1879), crucially helping to ignite passion for the story of  the Greek messenger prior to the organizing of the first modern Olympic games:

So, when Persia was dust, all cried, “To Acropolis!

Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
Athens is saved, thank Pan, go shout!” He flung down his shield
Ran like fire once more: and the space ‘twixt the fennel-field [‘Marathon’ means ‘fennel-field’]
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Like wine through clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, – the bliss!

The story has become apocryphal, repeated as a mythic charter for the marathon, seemingly a measure of the event’s extraordinary demands. Sharon Begley, writing for Reuters, for example, repeated the story to highlight the importance of sports science for modern athletes, how Pheidippides didn’t have the advantage of ‘the era’s leading scientists on whether he should wear shoes, carbo-load, or do weeks of interval training’ (‘London becomes a laboratory for Olympic sports science’).

What these accounts typically fail to recognise is Pheidippides’ less-than-ideal pre-run preparation: not only had he just likely fought in the battle against the Persians, he had also, according to Herodotus, run from the battlefield to Sparta and back immediately before that. The lead up to his fatal exertion included a two-day 136-mile round trip run over mountainous terrain to enlist reinforcements from the Spartans (they wanted to help, but had a religious festival to attend to). And Pheidippides final run to Athens didn’t have Gatorade pit-stops along the way.

If Pheidippides did drop dead from exhaustion (the stories are fragmentary), he had run around 160 miles in the week and possibly fought in a battle. Hardly demonstrating that the marathon distance was fatal, instead he demonstrated the now well-known athletic principle that you need to taper down your training a bit going into a bit event – or at least get some rest after a war.

On reason to bring up the story of Pheidippides is to point out that, although today’s professional athletes may run faster marathon times (or run 100 meter sprints or swim 200m individual sprints), they do so in a world in which athletic effort is increasingly divided from a sedentary life for more and more of the population. Pheidippides wasn’t an athlete, but he ran for a living. And even non-professionals were more physically fit than we can probably imagine, given our less active lifestyles. The Spartan army, once the city finished its religious observations, covered the distance to the battlefield in three days, 2000 strong and carrying all their weapons and heavy armor through the mountains. The Olympics, especially the excitement of incredible athletic performances, can create such a spectacle that they obscure the more dominant trend: we are growing increasingly inactive, less capable as a population of performing the sort of feats that Pheidippides accomplished.

Neuroanthropology on the Huffington Post

As part of the American Anthropological Association’s weekly blog at the Huffington Post, I’ve written the most recent column: ‘Faster Athletes, Slower Spectators and the Olympic Marathon.’ The argument is basically that, as the Olympics have grown and become – arguably – the most successful global media and sports phenomenon, as participants become more intensely competitive, the public that watches the Olympics has grown increasingly inactive, unathletic, and potentially unhealthy (in terms of noncommunicable diseases).

In the Huffington Post column, I especially discussed the story of Spyridon Louis, the Greek runner who won the first Olympic marathon, a race created for the modern Olympiad’s inaugural games in Athens in 1896.

…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.

Louis never ran another marathon after winning the first Olympic race at that length, returning to his business as a water carrier, periodically doing public appearances for the Greek public who considered him a national hero. He was happy to have been given a donkey cart by the king of Greece so that he no longer had to run after his water-carrying donkey, logging the miles while working that were his preparation for the race.

I didn’t mention in the Huffington Post column that one source suggested that George Averoff, a Greek financier who had already helped to build the Athens stadium when public funds ran low, had offered 100,000 Drachmas and his daughter’s hand in marriage to any Greek who won the marathon, desperate for a Greek victor in one of the track and field events as the games wore on (especially after an American with terrible form — nothing like Greek statues — threw a discus further than any of the Greek contestants). A tailor, barber and owner of a chocolate factory had also added other sweeteners for the victor in the marathon, if he was Greek.

Louis finished that marathon in less than three hours, stopping along the way for a bit of alcoholic refreshment, an Easter egg, and some orange juice. His time was also in spite of his pre-race preparation: prayer and fasting the day before (no carbo-loading!).

So often, journalism about sports research focuses on the fall of world records and the incredible performances of modern professional athletes. The story we are told is that science is helping us to approach the limit of human performance, that our athletes are more and more prepared for their events. For example, the London marathon winners (men and women) will be closer to two hours than three. There are even some suggestions that it may be possible for an athlete, some day, to run the marathon in less than two hours. Faster than ever before. Jumping higher. Lifting more. Modern athletes are living the Olympic credo to an extraordinary degree.

My argument in the Huffington Post piece, however, is that the Olympics, in some sense, have pursued one part of the Olympic credo – faster, higher, stronger – and, at the same time, lost connection with that other part of the credo – sport for all. The margins between the greatest athletes and the average person have grown so much that we can tell athletes from their skeletons, as if they were a different variety of human. Even in developing countries, inactivity is on the rise: we walk less, cycle less, and exercise less, and it shows up in muscles, bones, even our brains.

In contrast, skeletal remains from previous periods suggest that many people lived lives as vigorous as professional athletes. For example, exhumations of mass graves in battle sites in medieval England sometimes find bodies with asymmetries between bones in dominant and non-dominant arms – a measure of how much a person is loading up one arm – that are only matched in modern populations by professional athletes. Translation: the big change may not be professional athletes’ bodies, but the non-athletes bodies, which do not have hallmarks of vigorous living.

Professional sport and national priority

By professionalizing sport, and transforming it into spectacle, we have shifted our priorities. Australia, like many countries, spends millions of dollars on the quest for gold medals, building centralized training institutions that, too often, remind us of the state-run sporting machines of the Soviet bloc countries, shaping human bodies for national glory (see my earlier post on steroids).

I’m hardly the first to make this criticism. In Australia, in 2009, the Independent Sport Panel headed by Paul Crawford published a report entitled, ‘The Future of Sport in Australia,’ widely called the Crawford Report. Crawford’s panel argued that proponents of a high Olympic medal count for Australia could not justify large amounts of public funding spent to chase medals in obscure sports, activities that were not supported by extensive grassroots participation. The panel asked the government to consider whether funding was distorted: ‘The bias towards funding Olympic sports leads to outcomes that make little strategic sense for Australia.’

For example, the Crawford Report pointed out that archery received more national funding than cricket, even though participation rates in cricket were 100 times greater. As the report suggested: ‘Some priority should be given to those sports played throughout the country and even more so to those that engage their participants through their lifetimes.’

In response, the head of Australia’s Olympic Committee, John Coates, was livid, ‘pissed off’ as he put it. The report was ‘an insult to some of our great Olympic champions.’ I won’t go into all the arguments made by various supporters of Olympic sports against the Crawford Report’s conclusions, but suffice to say that Coates responded by calling for more money for Olympic sports in Australia, suggesting that the country risked slipping out of the top five in the medal count if the government couldn’t come up with another $100 million. Such a fall would be an international humiliation for a nation whose identity was so tied to athletic

I can’t help but see a direct link between economic considerations and nationalist prestige, and the effect on communities in Australia. At the same time that money flows into specialized ‘high performance’ institutions, we force community athletic clubs here in Australia to cannibalize their own communities with ‘poker machines’ (which Americans call slot machines) in order to keep their doors open. The international sporting environment shapes state priorities which trickle down into the lives of children and adults. The ‘science’ of talent identification, of which I’m extremely dubious, throws resources as promising young people while it demotivates legions more.

I quoted Richard Pound, former Vice President of the International Olympic Committee, in the Huffington Post piece saying that the Olympics had successfully become ‘the stuff of dreams,’ and I couldn’t agree more. Viewed from Australia, on the eve of London, it’s hard to over-estimate the extraordinary cultural significance of the medals awarded at these games, at the chance to see a fellow countryman or -woman (however recently immigrated) achieve so much that our flag is raised over the Olympic pedestal.

And yet it’s hard not to wonder about the trade-offs made between medals and the other priorities that must be demoted in the quest of this particular dream. Although I continue to be an unapologetic sports fan, I also worry that our strategies for pursuing excellence increasingly isolate athletes with promise, demand that they become professional, and tell the rest of us that our place is on the sideline or at home on the couch. In that sense, the Olympic dream is strong, but it is increasingly remote, and the path there littered with broken dreams that are casualties of the process.

Great recent links on sports:

There’s so much great sports science being discussed right now. The London Olympics have caused a virtual explosion of online commentary, sports science, and discussions, more than I can even keep up with right now. Here’s a few of the posts that stand out in recent months on sports science, politics and culture.

The Race against Time: Pushing the limits of brain science could bring Canadian marathoners Olympic glory. By Alex Hutchinson for The Walrus. July, 2012.

One One-Hundredth of a Second Faster: Building Better Olympic Athletes. By Mark McClusky at Wired magazine’s Playbook. June 25, 2012.

The Summer Olympics and the “War on Doping”: Time for a change in strategy? By Dirk Hanson at Addiction Inbox.

Performance enhancement: Superhuman athletes. By Helen Thompson, at Nature News.

Is there a limit to athletic performance? Kate Murphy at The Conversation. 16 July 2012.

Daniel Wolpert On Why You Have A Brain. By Dan Peterson at Sports are 80 Percent Mental. 31 March 2012.

Olympian Arrogance. by Jules Boykoff and Alan Tomlinson, originally for The New York Times (posted on Common Dreams). 5 July 2012.

Money well spent? The Olympic dash for taxpayers’ cash. By Brian Stoddart at The Conversation. 18 June 2012.

All Men Can’t Jump: Why nearly every sport except long-distance running is fundamentally absurd. By David Stipp for Slate. 4 June 2012.

Caballo Blanco’s Last Run: The Micah True Story. By Barry Bearak for The New York Times. 20 May, 2012.

The Question: Do footballers know what they’re doing? By Jonathan Wilson for The Guardian, The Sport Blog. 29 May 2012.

A bit older, but worth reading on the changes in the way that the marathon is being run:
The Problem with the (American) Marathon. By ‘XCstallion92’ at Sportales. (10 November 2010)

References for the Huffington Post piece:

Like any good academic, I believe that a writer should review his or her sources, to the degree that any text is a byzantine and hopeless tangle of citations, footnotes, and vague allusions to other works that are hard to lay their hands on and difficult to read. However, I did promise that I would put the sources for my column up, so I’ve included those below. Reader beware, although there’s some really good stuff in this list, if you’re a true sports science geek.

The passages from Richard Pound come from:

Pound, Richard H. 2008. The Future of the Olympic Movement: Promised Land or Train Wreck? In Robert K. Barney, Michael K. Heine, Kevin B. Wamsley and Gordon H. MacDonald (eds.) Pathways: Critiques and Discourse in Olympic Research: Ninth International Symposium for Olympic Research. International Centre for Olympic Studies. University of Western Ontario. Pp. 1-19.

Cost estimates for the Olympics come from:

Oliver, Amy. 2012. Cost of Olympics to spiral to £24bn… TEN TIMES higher than 2005 estimate (and is it any wonder when we’re forking out £335,000 for a single sculpture). Daily Mail Online (27 January 2012)

See also: Odeven, Ed. 2012. Olympics just keep getting bigger. Japan Times (5 July 2012)

On changes in the marathon and the ‘Oprah Winfrey line’:

How Oprah ruined the marathon. By Edward McClelland at Slate. 4 Nov 2007.

For more information on Spyridon Louis, the 1896 Olympic marathon, and the history of Greek running:

Herodotus, The Persian Wars. Translated by George Rawlinson 1942 and edited by Bruce J. Butterfield. Book 6 is available at:
The account of Pheidippides’ running heroics is in paragraphs 6.105 − 6.106, where Herodotus describes him as being dispatched to Sparta by the Athenian generals. Herodotus reports that the runner even saw Pan on his journey, but was unable to get the Spartans to come in time for the battle. Herodotus makes no mention of a runner going to Athens to announce the victory and subsequently dying from the effort.

Coubertin, Pierre de, Timoleon J. Philemon, N. G. Politis, and Charalambos Anninos. 1896. The Olympic Games. B.C. 776. — A. D. I896. Second Part: The Olympic Games in 1896. London: H. Grevel and Co.

Kemp, Ian. The Great Marathon Myth. Cool Running New Zealand.

Verinis, James P. 2005. Spiridon Loues, the Modern Foustanéla, and the Symbolic Power of Pallikariá at the 1896 Olympic Games. Journal of Modern Greek Studies 23(1): 139-175.

On skeletal asymmetry in athletes and pre-industrial populations:

The battle of Towton: Nasty, brutish and not that short: Medieval warfare was just as terrifying as you might imagine. 2010. The Economist (16 December 2010). Available at: Accessed on 22 July 2012.

Auerbach, B.M. & Ruff, C.B. (2006). Limb bone bilateral asymmetry: variability and commonality among modern humans, Journal of Human Evolution, 50 (2) 218. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2005.09.004

Ducher, G., Courteix, D., Même, S., Magni, C., Viala, J.F. & Benhamou, C.L. (2005). Bone geometry in response to long-term tennis playing and its relationship with muscle volume: A quantitative magnetic resonance imaging study in tennis players, Bone, 37 (4) 466. DOI: 10.1016/j.bone.2005.05.014

Rhodes, J.A. (2006). Adaptations to humeral torsion in medieval Britain, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 130 (2) 166. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20331

Rhodes, J.A. & Knüsel, C.J. (2005). Activity-related skeletal change in medieval humeri: Cross-sectional and architectural alterations, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 128 (3) 546. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20147

Shaw CN, Hofmann CL, Petraglia MD, Stock JT, Gottschall JS (2012) Neandertal Humeri May Reflect Adaptation to Scraping Tasks, but Not Spear Thrusting. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40349. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040349. Read the press release at:

Shaw, C.N. & Stock, J.T. (2009). Habitual throwing and swimming correspond with upper limb diaphyseal strength and shape in modern human athletes, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 140 (1) 172. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21063

On global trends in decreasing activity & sedentarism:

Dollman, J. (2005). Evidence for secular trends in children’s physical activity behaviour * Commentary, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39 (12) 897. DOI: 10.1136/bjsm.2004.016675

Guthold, R., Ono, T., Strong, K.L., Chatterji, S. & Morabia, A. (2008). Worldwide Variability in Physical Inactivity, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 34 (6) 494. DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2008.02.013

Hallal, P.C., Andersen, L.B., Bull, F.C., Guthold, R., Haskell, W. & Ekelund, U. (2012). Global physical activity levels: surveillance progress, pitfalls, and prospects, The Lancet, 380 (9838) 257. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60646-1

Kohl, H.W., Craig, C.L., Lambert, E.V., Inoue, S., Alkandari, J.R., Leetongin, G. & Kahlmeier, S. (2012). The pandemic of physical inactivity: global action for public health, The Lancet, Preprint DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60898-8

Lee, I.M., Shiroma, E.J., Lobelo, F., Puska, P., Blair, S.N. & Katzmarzyk, P.T. (2012). Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy, The Lancet, 380 (9838) 229. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61031-9

Misra, A. & Khurana, L. (2008). Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome in Developing Countries, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 93 (11_Supplement_1) s30. DOI: 10.1210/jc.2008-1595

Ng, N., Hakimi, M., Van Minh, H., Juvekar, S., Razzaque, A., Ashraf, A., Masud Ahmed, S., Kanungsukkasem, U., Soonthornthada, K. & Huu Bich, T. (2009). Prevalence of physical inactivity in nine rural INDEPTH Health and Demographic Surveillance Systems in five Asian countries, Global Health Action, 2 DOI: 10.3402/gha.v2i0.1985

Other criticisms of the Olympics and sports in general as relating to fitness:

Kolt, G.S. (2012). The Olympic ideal: Is it really being played out?, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 15 (4) DOI: 10.1016/j.jsams.2012.05.002

Mountjoy, M. (2011). Health and fitness of young people: what is the role of sport?, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45 (11) 838. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2011-090184

Mountjoy, M., Andersen, L.B., Armstrong, N., Biddle, S., Boreham, C., Bedenbeck, H.P.B., Ekelund, U., Engebretsen, L., Hardman, K., Hills, A. & (2011). International Olympic Committee consensus statement on the health and fitness of young people through physical activity and sport, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45 (11) 848. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2011-090228


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8 Responses to The marathon & Olympic movement on Huffington Post

  1. MTBradley says:

    Here’s a video with some skeletal stuff from the Mary Rose investigations.

    • gregdowney says:

      Thanks, Matt —
      Now that I’ve written about it, I’m noticing all sorts of references to cool research on pre-industrial skeletons, soldiers, mass graves at battlefields… Thanks for adding the Mary Rose to my list!

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