Friday 24 January 2020

The marathon may have run its course

With a history of cheats, collapses and even looters, the gruelling race is due a rethink

'Mass-participation marathons are booming around the world' (stock image)
'Mass-participation marathons are booming around the world' (stock image)

Simon Burnton

At the 1908 London Olympics, entrants for the marathon had to agree that "a competitor must at once retire from the race if ordered to do so by a member of the medical staff appointed by the British Olympic Council to patrol the course", there being a genuine concern for the well-being of anyone foolish enough to volunteer for such a test of endurance.

In the 1906 Athens Olympics (since relegated to the status of 'Intercalated Games') worried organisers stationed an ambulance every kilometre along the route (at its conclusion Billy Sherring, the Canadian winner, was presented with a small goat). The 1904 event, in St Louis, featured two near-fatalities, only 44 per cent of entrants completed the course and the athlete who finished fourth had to stop off mid-race for a nap.

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Observers wondered what made someone suitable for such an outlandishly testing event. "The longer the race the more, we should suppose, depends on the man's condition, and this, of course, is not merely a matter of firm flesh and bright eyes," noted one report on a 1909 marathon.

"Obscure points about a man's heart or liver may be the determining influence in such a race, and even one who has been comfortably passed by an insurance doctor cannot know much about these . . . Races which call for the extreme measure of endurance must probe curiosity into a man's organs."

In these early years of the modern marathon, the ability to run in excess of 26 miles was considered to lie at the wildest extremes of human achievement. Spectators thronged to watch races, drawn to the scenes of suffering that were almost guaranteed.

Also in 1909, New York hosted a marathon featuring the Italian who famously collapsed in the stadium when on the verge of victory in the 1908 Olympic event, Dorando Pietri. According to a report, "in the 16th mile Morrissey collapsed and had to be assisted from the track . . . In the 17th mile Dorando gave up temporarily and left the track . . . In the 19th mile Appleby fell down in a faint. Dorando also returned to the race, although forced by weakness to run unevenly . . . During the 22nd mile Svanberg fainted dead away, but after being soused with ice water re-entered the race . . . Crook finished third, in a very exhausted state. He collapsed after crossing the tape."

These were some of the world's greatest distance runners, racing around a perfectly flat track, and still finding the distance way beyond them. In 1912 Francisco Lázaro, a Portuguese athlete, collapsed after 19 miles of the Olympic marathon and died. In both the 1896 and 1904 Olympic marathons, medal winners were disqualified when it was discovered that they been carried part of the route by horse or motor.

The marathon was considered so difficult that in 1919 the Guardian reported (inaccurately, as it turned out) that it was to be dropped from the Olympic programme altogether "on the ground that the games are not intended to cultivate a race of supermen".

Yet that does appear to have been its effect: precisely 100 years later, a total of 268,675 people competed in the six largest mass-participation events of 2019, in Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo; some 414,168 people, around the population of Cardiff, applied for a place in the London marathon alone. So many people now compete in marathons that the achievement of completing one has come to seem quotidian rather than superhuman, something anyone could, and probably should, be able to do.

In April, Rosie Ruiz, one of the great marathon cheats, died aged 66; her time at the 1980 Boston event was the third-fastest ever run by a woman and wildly celebrated for as long as it took to discover that she travelled most of the distance by subway.

There have been times of late when the world has appeared full of people intent on paying tribute to Ruiz by replicating, in a variety of ways, her most famous feat. The most obvious example was the woman who came eighth at April's Eugene marathon in Oregon having spent much of that event in her hotel, eventually rejoining the race for its conclusion, and then five months later came second in a half-marathon in Vancouver having covered most of the distance by bicycle. She later admitted to a six-year cheating spree.

"Our hope is that the running community pour love and compassion towards her and show her that she can feel that sense of belonging, validation and self-worth without having to lie and cheat to get it," officials said. In March a woman was disqualified from the Xuzhou marathon in China for cycling most of the way - she didn't even have the good grace to leave the official race route, and still took over five-and-a-half hours to reach the finish line (the same event, which sounds like a terrifyingly lawless affair, saw spectators loot not only the bananas and water bottles that had been laid out for the competitors, but also the tables they had been laid out on).

Mass-participation marathons are booming around the world, but are particularly popular in China. Cheating, however, is so rife that some events now have to use facial recognition software to guard against the twin scourges of bib-swapping and route-shortening.

At the Shenzhen marathon last November a competitor discovered a cunning shortcut across a wooded verge, and behind him others followed. In the end 258 people were disqualified, an episode labelled "deeply shameful" by Chinese state media. "Marathon running is not simply exercise, it is a metaphor for life," chided organisers.

This is a beautiful but not entirely original thought. Oprah Winfrey once said: "Running is a metaphor for life because you get out of it what you put into it." Meb Keflezighi, who won the men's silver at the 2004 Olympics, said: "A marathon is a metaphor for life, and life is not easy. A marathon is not easy."

Perhaps if the marathon is indeed a metaphor for life it is because many of its participants want doing well to be easier than it is, think they deserve to win without a great deal of effort, and are willing to bend any rule to make it happen - even if the cost of their pursuit of personal glory is that the genuine efforts of others go unrewarded.

Despite the bewildering numbers now involved it could be argued that this race remains, not for all but certainly for very many, too difficult. And all things considered, metaphorically and indeed literally, might it be preferable to find a way of making this most arduous of races, well, just a little bit easier?

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