Published: October 2010
The idea of organizing a marathon race during the first modern Olympic Games, in commemoration of the impressive feat of messenger Pheidipidis (just after the Marathon battle in 490 BC), belongs to renowned French linguist Michel Bréal (1832-1915). This idea was welcomed by his friend, Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), the founder of modern Olympics, as well as the Greek author Dimitrios Vikelas (1835-1908), the first president of the International Olympic Committee.
The story of the first marathon race that took place in Athens, in 1896, where the winner was Spiros Louis, a Greek villager (finishing time: 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds), has acquired mythical dimensions. Since then, however, the marathon has become one of the few athletic events that attract thousands of followers and participants throughout the world. Nowadays, hundreds of marathon races take place each year. Still, no other marathon route compares to the original one, that from Marathon to the Kallimarmaron Olympic stadium, which actually led to the international popularity the race acquired shortly after the first modern Olympic Games.
The marathon is an arduous race. Aspiring marathon runners run for months before the event, covering a distance of forty to fifty kilometers on a weekly basis, whereas professional athletes may reach two hundred kilometers per week. Apart from the risk of injuries, their bodies may easily collapse. It takes a great deal of will and strength for one to continue the race. Yet, every year, millions of people throughout the world desire to participate in a marathon. In fact, most of them contest again and again, regardless of the successful or unsuccessful outcome in previous races. Why is that? Dedicated marathon runners claim that this athletic event has influenced tremendously their life and has often altered completely their life stance!
The marathon is an athletic event that usually begins with thousands of athletes, but only a few dozens manage to reach the finish line. It starts as a collective struggle which, however, ends in a way that discloses what it truly is: a personal bet, the private obsession of the unequivocally solitary long-distance runner.
The present collection of pictures, by renowned photographer Ilias Bourgiotis, unrolls frame by frame the film of expectations, dreams and aspirations of the marathon runners in contest. In Bourgiotis’ black and white pictures, with their dramatic chiaroscuro effects, the reader becomes one with the athletes: the passion, effort and persistence, the painstaking struggle, and above all the endurance of the body and soul are all manifest in this pictorial marathon. Even when the frame is intruded by familiar images of the “classic” route, such as statues, old and contemporary buildings etc, what in fact continues to attract the viewer’s eye is the human body that stubbornly struggles to repeat the mythic exclamation of victory that was heard for the first time at the end of this same route 2,500 years ago: Nenikikamen!
No ordinary long-distance road race
The Athens Classic Marathon has a unique appeal, run as it is along the route of the legendary feat that inspired the modern race. This year, the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon and of Pheidippides’ fabled dash to Athens to announce the Greeks’ victory over the Persians has heightened interest in every aspect of the race.
A noteworthy addition to the raft of books published to mark the occasion is Ilias Bourgiotis’s collection of photographs “Athens Classic Marathon.”
The 150 black-and-white images taken over eight years capture the challenge, the effort and the glory of competing in a race in which, as Bourgiotis writes, “there are no winners and losers. Time is not the issue, finishing the race is. In the end, everybody wins.”
The photographs trace the route from start to finish, a route that, as the photographer notes, “demands discipline, patience, persistence and self-denial.” A runner crouches under a tree, enveloped in a clear plastic bag for protection from the rain. Another performs a cobra stretch on the grass before the start.
Helpers make wreaths. Competitors at the starting line show a mixture of apprehension and resolve. A shadow across the road echoes the shape of a runner seen on classical vases.
Athletes absorbed in their own stride pound the tarmac in sun and rain, past garish billboards, down underpasses and beside graffiti-covered urban concrete. One steps aside to relieve himself. Another, clad in toga and helmet, takes a break in a bus shelter. At the end, there’s some jubilation but mostly exhaustion.
This, as Bourgiotis remarks in his preface, is no ordinary longdistance race. It honors the ideal of Nike, or Victory, in this case over “the hardships of the track and the constraints of time and physical endurance,” to which his pictures bear eloquent witness.
Vivienne Nilan, ATHENSPLUS, 22 Oct. 2010