The distance of the marathon has undergone some changes over the years. The now accepted distance of 42.195 km (26 miles, 385 yards) was not agreed upon until 1924. When the modern Olympics were revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and it was decided the marathon would be included, the distance from Marathon to Athens was measured. The shortest route from Marathon to Athens is over a mountain, so it was felt that Pheidippides probably took a slightly longer route around the mountain. This was found to be approximately 40 km (25 miles), and so the marathon race in the first few modern Olympics was roughly 40 km. The table below shows the distances of the first 7 modern Olympics, from 1896 to 1924.
|Year||Distance (km)||Distance (miles)|
|1904 (Saint Louis)||40||24.85|
|1920 (Antwerp)||42.75||26.56||1924 (Paris – standardised)||42.195||26.22|
In 1924, for the Paris Olympics of that year, the distance was set at the same distance as the 1908 London marathon, namely 42.195 km or 26 mies, 385 yards. Ever since, this has been the official marathon distance.
Of all of the marathons in the early years of the modern Olympics, probably the most famous is the 1908 London Olympics marathon, sometimes known as “Dorando’s marathon“. The nickname comes from the Italian runner, Dorando Pietri, who entered the stadium in first place, but was completely disorientated.
The length of the 1908 London Olympics course had undergone several changes in the lead up to the event. Originally, a 25 mile (40 km course was planned from Windsor Castle to the Olympic stadium in White City, Shepherd’s Bush. After protests about tram lines in the last few miles, and a decision to move the start to move the start slightly, the distance ended up being 26 miles to the Stadium. Then, at the request of Queen Alexandra, 385 yards were added so that the marathon would finish in front of the Royal box.
Pietri fell several times in the 385 yards inside the stadium, and ended up being helped across the finishing line. He was disqualified, and the Gold medal was given to the American Johnny Hayes. But, Queen Alexandra was so taken by the plight and bravery of the little Italian that he was awarded a special silver cup by her on the following day.
Because the terrain of marathon courses vary, for a long time the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) would only consider a “world best” for the marathon, rather than a world record”. This was changed in recent years. The table below shows the improvement of the mens’ and womens’ world marathon records over the last few decades.
|2:08:18||Robert De Castella||Australia||December 6, 1981||Fukuoka Marathon|
|2:08:05||Steve Jones||Wales||October 21, 1984||Chicago Marathon|
|2:07:12||Carlos Lopes||Portugal||April 20, 1985||Rotterdam Marathon|
|2:06:50||Belayneh Dinsamo||Ethiopia||April 17, 1988||Rotterdam Marathon|
|2:06:05||Ronaldo da Costa||Brazil||September 20, 1998||Berlin Marathon|
|2:05:42||Khalid Khannouchi||Morocco||October 24, 1999||Chicago Marathon|
|2:05:38||Khalid Khannouchi||United States||April 14, 2002||London Marathon|
|2:04:55||Paul Tergat||Kenya||September 28, 2003||Berlin Marathon|
|2:04:26||Haile Gebrselassie||Ethiopia||September 30, 2007||Berlin Marathon|
|2:03:59||Haile Gebrselassie||Ethiopia||September 28, 2008||Berlin Marathon|
|2:03:38||Patrick Makau||Kenya||September 25, 2011||Berlin Marathon|
and the progression for the womens’ record is
|2:26:12||Joan Benoit||United States||September 12, 1982||Eugene, United States|
|2:25:28.7||Grete Waitz||Norway||April 17, 1983||London Marathon|
|2:22:43||Joan Benoit||United States||April 18, 1983||Boston Marathon|
|2:24:26||Ingrid Kristiansen||Norway||May 13, 1984||London|
|2:21:06||Ingrid Kristiansen||Norway||April 21, 1985||London Marathon|
|2:20:47||Tegla Loroupe||Kenya||April 19, 1998||Rotterdam Marathon|
|2:20:43||Tegla Loroupe||Kenya||September 26, 1999||Berlin Marathon|
|2:19:46||Naoko Takahashi||Japan||September 30, 2001||Berlin Marathon|
|2:18:47||Catherine Ndereba||Kenya||October 7, 2001||Chicago Marathon|
|2:17:18||Paula Radcliffe||England||October 13, 2002||Chicago Marathon|
|2:15:25||Paula Radcliffe||England||April 13, 2003||London Marathon|