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Release date: 03rd June, 2004
Publisher: Virgin Books

List Price: £20.00
Our Price: £14.00
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By Timothy Collings and Stuart Sykes
Virgin Books

4SportsBooks price: £ 14.00 (rrp £20.00)

Given the race distance, the preparation required of its participants and the sheer willpower necessary to run 26 miles, it is hardly surprising that the marathon and the written word make comfortable bedfellows.

There are few brief histories, for example, of the 100 metres or the role of the parallel bars in the Olympic movement. This is not to denigrate the competitors in these other events: no less preparation or dedication is required to reach the top in them, but it is perhaps the overwhelmingly gruelling nature of the marathon which captures the imagination. The fact that running a marathon appears akin to climbing a mountain is also responsible for the quantity of literary material which has dealt with the event since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

Collings and Sykes have written a compelling book which complements the marathon's literary traditions. The reader's appetite is whetted from the first chapter when the description of the statue erected to Emile Zatopek and of his modest kit, on show at Lausanne's Olympic Museum, provide a silent appreciation of the race's difficulty: "The shoes are there÷bent, tight and ugly, worn and worked in, uncomfortable to look at, with no cushions, no luxuries and no extras." It is apparent that the authors understand every marathon runner's discomfort and display a 'feel' for the place the race has in athletic history.

As a result of this 'feel', the book seamlessly integrates interviews with previous race winners, Olympian and other competitors; the technique succeeds because the interviews serve to illuminate the marathon's popularity.

Due deference is also given to the race's history. The marathon was included in the modern Olympics on the recommendation of Michel Breat, a friend of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the IOC President from 1896 to 1925. It was intended to be symbolic in nature to commemorate the Battle of Marathon in 490BC when the outnumbered Athenians slew over 20,000 Persians. According to legend, an Athenian messenger, Pheidippides, was despatched to run from Marathon to Athens to announce 'Rejoice!' before dropping down dead. Ironically, the distance covered by Pheidippides was approximately 25 miles; it was not until the London Olympics of 1908, when a further 385 yards was added to the 26 mile course that the distance was established as 'official'.

While the background and history are fascinating, this book comes into its own when it tells individual tales of heroism and sacrifice. The race's first winner, for example, a shepherd called Spiridon Louis, was offered innumerable gifts following his victory but accepted only one - a horse and cart which would enable him to transport water to his village.

At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, Sohn Kee-Chung was forced to run under a Japanese name, Kitei Son, as his own country, Korea, was occupied by Japan. The photograph of him breaking the tape to win gold shows a face etched with determination, yet it was not the Korean flag which flew to celebrate his success in Germany, but the rising sun of the Japanese. Only at the opening ceremony in Seoul in 1988 was Sohn Kee-Chung finally able to acknowledge the salutes of his fellow countrymen.

Such tales leave a lump in the throat because they illustrate the very essence of marathon running: defeating the odds, refusing to be beaten, determination, willpower and a host of other traits. Collings and Sykes manage to capture this essence and end it, fittingly, with their own salute to the spirit of Zatopek.

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