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The doggone Olympic marathon road

Athens Marathon

Athens Marathon

With the Olympic games just a few weeks away, there is till much bad press about whether all the infrastructures will be ready in time, despite the escalated budget for the games. But what’s the rundown on the marathon route?

AcropolisI got to wondering about this seriously in May, when a colleague of mine who returned from Athens reported that he had driven the legendary route from Marathon to Athens, which he described as a hair-raising experience dodging potholes and newly set-up excavation sites clogged with hundreds of dump trucks, excavators, cement mixers and laborers with old-fashioned pickaxes working double shifts to widen the racecourse. I have a distinct memory of the road myself, 18 years ago I had some kind of romantic notion that I would never have run a real marathon unless I had actually followed in the footsteps of the legendary feat of the Greek soldier who ran from the Plain of Marathon to Athens to bring news of the Greek victory over the Persian army, which after yelling “Rejoice, We have won!”, he promptly died. Well, I can tell you that I nearly died myself stubbornly insisting on completing this feat. The road is a very narrow highway with no shoulder. It is a major thoroughfare for large trucks driving at dangerous speeds. The road at the time was already in very bad condition, and the edges of the road were littered with peeled tire treads, hubcabs, rubbish etc., which made running off the road nearly impossible. The other major problem was trying to avoid being attacked by stray dogs. Fortunately, I was accompanied by a cyclist, who also risked his life to be the first hit for the truckers, and to ward off the dogs with a baton in hand at the same time.

Like many other of the Greek Olympic projects, rebuilding the marathon route was delayed by lawsuits and financial problems with contractors. The Greeks have held races along the course for years, and which ends at the old marble Panathinaiko Stadium near the Acropolis. Apparently officials decided it was necessary to rip up most of the pavement because it was prone to flooding. The problem of the stray dogs has also been taken in hand. The Greek government announced measures to collect, tag, treat and sterilise stray dogs prior to their adoption or return to their natural settings, and also pledged financial support for the establishment and modernisation of animal shelters. Dog catchers were recruited to round up the dogs and take them to a dog pound outside of Athens, to be released after the Olympics. However, after it was rumoured that the Athens municipality had instead poisoned the dogs, there was a big fuss created with animal rights groups protesting. One animal-rights group in Berlin made a provocative campaign for the Athens’ strays when one of its members, a Swiss artist, dressed in a dog costume and mask, strapped himself to a 12-foot crucifix saying he would remain on the crucifix for three days with a banner hanging from his neck bearing the slogan “No blood for the Olympics”, in front of the Greek embassy, to protest alleged abuses ahead of the 2004 Olympic Games.
On Sunday August 22, 2004, when the women line up at the start of the Olympic marathon, even though you can be sure that the temperature will be soaring, the air thick with dust, dirt, grime, exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke, no matter what the state of the route, the spirit of the marathon will recapture its ancient glory sending gooseflesh to millions of spectators around the world. Perhaps, at last, I will be able to live a true marathon pilgrimage watching the marathon unfold along the sacred route, free of truckers and dogs.

Further information: The History of the Marathon

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