A brief history of London Olympic Marathon courses
By Amby Burfoot
London is hosting the Olympics for the third time this summer, and will be using a new marathon course for the third time. What's with these Brits, can't make up their minds? Here's a brief history of London Olympic Marathon courses:
In one of the most famous and historic marathons of all time, the distance is lengthened from about 40 kilometres to 42.2 kilometres. This is done so the race can begin at Windsor Castle and finish inside the Olympic stadium. On an unusually warm, muggy day, the Italian Dorando Pietri appears headed toward victory until he starts wobbling to and fro, and collapses on the stadium track. Officials rush to his aid, and help him across the finish line, which results in Pietri's disqualification. The second runner to reach the line, American Johnny Hayes, is declared the official winner.
1. Johnny Hayes, 2:55:19
2. Charles Hefferon, 2:56:06
3. Joseph Forshaw, 2:57:11
The first post-WWII Olympics couldn't use the historic 1908 course, because much of central London had been so severely damaged by the German air attacks from 1940 to 1944. Instead, the marathon was held on a "lollipop" course in a more northerly district around Wembley stadium. On another hot, muggy day, the marathoners ran out for approximately 10K from the stadium, did a large loop, then retraced their steps back to the stadium. The course included serious hills of up to 90 metres, and followed the topography of the original Athens Olympic Marathon course (and the Boston Marathon): mostly uphill for 32 kilometres, then downhill to the finish. The final lap on the track nearly duplicates the 1908 fiasco.
Belgium's Etienne Gailly leads into the stadium, but is barely moving. Argentina's Delfo Cabrera, running his first marathon, and England's Tom Richards both pass Gailly on the track.
1. Delfo Cabrera, 2:34:52
2. Tom Richards, 2:35:08
3. Etienne Gailly, 2:35:34
For the first time in a London Olympics, there will be two marathons, the women's event on 5 August, and the men's race on 12 August. Neither of the two previous London courses are being utilised. Organisers have clearly chosen a route that will maximise spectator access and TV backdrops, particularly of Buckingham Palace, Parliament and the Tower of London. It's basically a figure-eight course (that begins with a small introductory loop) that will run close to the Thames River but also include several short, steep uphills and downhills. These, along with the 110 turns or bends, including four U-turns, are certain to make the two Olympic marathons among the most memorable ever.
Note: While the Olympic marathons start and finish at the finish line of the now-annual London Marathon, the courses are otherwise completely different. The London Marathon course is simpler, flatter, faster, and held in cooler, mid-April temperatures.
Thanks to John Bryant, author of The London Marathon, Chris Brasher: The Man Who Made The London Marathon, and The Marathon Makers (about the 1908 London Olympic Marathon), for providing details about the 1948 London Olympic Marathon.
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