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A town called Marathon

Erik Kirschbaum | August 26, 2004

This dusty little farming town is bursting with pride that the name of Marathon has become a synonym for endurance around the world.

Sotiris Geramanis is one local resident, though, who would like to see something more tangible -- royalties, for instance.

The 41-year-old butcher with a shop on Marathon's main street said the town deserves a slice of the action when businesses use "marathon" in their name, or others use it as an adjective for never-ending negotiations, long journeys, even particularly athletic sex.

"We don't earn anything off of all this," said Geramanis, a stern, heavyset man with penetrating brown eyes.

"We should get a share of the profits from all these people who use our name. It's ours. Look on the Internet you see there are thousands of companies around the world using Marathon.

"They can use it but they should pay us a percentage of their profits."

His "Marathon Butchers" and his friend's "Marathon Pizza and Café" across the street as well as other local businesses in the sleepy town 40 km (25 miles) -- just about a marathon run -- east of Athens should, of course, be exempted, he said.

"We're in Marathon," he said. "We have the right to use it."

He admits that prospects of cashing in are vague, however.

VICTORY MESSAGE

The race that gave the world the word will conclude the Athens Games on Sunday, just over two hours after the men start running in the village -- population 8,000.

The first marathon was run for the modern revival of the Olympics at Athens in 1896, beginning near the ancient site of a battle between Greeks and Persians. The Battle of Marathon was fought in 490 BC and outnumbered Greek forces prevailed.

A messenger was dispatched to bring word to Athens. According to legend, the runner Phidippides cried out "Nenikikame!" (We won) upon arrival. He then collapsed and died.

"It's not a legend, it's a true story," said Maria Dermetziou, 24, who works at the town's museum devoted to the race. It is a sentiment shared by many Greeks even if the historical evidence for Phidippides' feat is unclear.

There were no distance events at the ancient Olympics, begun in the 8th century BC. So the marathon was invented in 1896 as a tribute to Phidippides and was won in just under three hours by local man Spiridon Louis, who earned national fame for this solitary athletic feat.

The first races at the early Olympics were about 40 km, the distance from Marathon to Athens.

Today's runners have Britain's King Edward VII to thank for the extra couple of kilometres they must now sweat -- the marathon distance was fixed at 42.195 km so that the race to London's 1908 Olympic stadium could start at Windsor Castle.

Italy's Dorando Pietri led the race that year but was ill prepared to go the extra mile. Barely conscious as he entered the stadium, he caused a frenzy as he struggled. He came first but was disqualified for having unsolicited help from a police officer as the American in second place, John Hayes, neared.

That extra distance now poses a problem in Greece because the direct route from Marathon to Athens, the route run in 1896, is only 40 km. So Sunday's course, run last Sunday by the women, makes a peculiar detour just after the start to make a long loop around a mound that honours the fallen Greek warriors of 490 BC.

LOCAL PRIDE

The history of Marathon may be rich, but the non-descript town with its thousands of sheep, crumbling buildings, three police officers and single jail cell has failed to capitalise on its famous name. That is just fine with many of the locals.

"It's nice and quiet here," said Christos Dimou, 25, who runs the town's one video rental store. "I moved here five years ago to get away from Athens. Athens is a dirty and dangerous place. The atmosphere here is peaceful and people are friendly."

The main street is lined with taverns, bakeries and fruit stalls in buildings in various stages of decay. There are also shops selling mobile phones, hardware and souvenirs.

Dimou's brother Gregoris, his business partner, said he is delighted that "marathon" is another Greek word that made it big abroad. Greeks themselves use "marathonios" to describe a long-lasting endeavour -- although the people of Marathon tend to use other words to avoid inevitable local confusion.

"The whole world knows the word 'marathon'," said Gregoris Dimou, 23. "You hear 'marathon shopping', 'marathon meeting', 'marathon sex' and 'marathon traffic jam'. Marathon, marathon, marathon. It's great for us. We are proud of our famous name."

Down the street, though, the butcher still wants a cut.


More features | Athens 2004: The Complete Coverage

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