Those from Sydney would probably recall a wide range of international sporting events in the year prior to our Olympics. Every sport held a major international competition to test the officials, the venues and have a practice for all. Sydney’s marathon fulfilled that role. As an official from the sport of canoeing I was probably more aware of the implications of this than your average punter, so this made the Athens Marathon being run as a test event significantly more appealing than it might otherwise be. Obviously it would be well organised like everything else in Athens prior to the Olympics. I had visited there in 2002, and was keen to come back and see what had changed with the Olympic preparations.
By November 2003, with only 9 months to go until the games, the place was even more chaotic than usual. Construction was at a fever pitch, everything was late and over budget, so the idea of testing all the systems was a bit tricky. We all knew security was going to be a big deal for Athens, so it was a bit of a surprise to be able to talk our way onto one of the largest Olympic construction sites and wander around to look at several partly completed venues.
The Sunday morning of the marathon we had to negotiate our way downtown to the Panathinaikon Stadium, which was the amazing marble stadium used for the 1896 Olympics. Apparently there has been a stadium on the site for hundreds of years. This would at the end of the day be the finish line for the race. From there buses took everyone out to the start at Marathon. The history was great, and with less than 3000 starters it wasn’t at all crowded. But with construction everywhere, and the road on which we were running being rebuilt, there were lots of tripping hazards along the way. Now I was well back in the pack, with a 4 hour target time, but of course Athens is an uphill course for about half its length. No wonder poor Phidippides died in 490BC when he ran the very first marathon!
Being back in the pack, the drink stations were a real eye opener. 2 or 3 volunteers trying to open bottles of water and pour them into cups to hand to the runners coming past! bedlam would be an understatement. People just had to grab the full bottles and run with them. And it was a day when plenty of fluid was needed. Average November temperatures are claimed to be 17C, on this occasion it was above 30 degrees by late morning. And I had arranged some personal drinks of flat coke in discrete bottles, but someone else decided they needed them more than I because 2 out of 3 were gone when I reached the drink stations.
It was a long way to the stadium, but the finish in such a historic place, having completed the original marathon course, was quite unforgettable. At least the organisers were consistent, they managed to lose the personal gear bags for nearly half the field until 6 hours after the race start, because the buses carrying the bags from the start couldn’t get to the finish because the road to Athens from Marathon was closed – for the marathon!! And nobody could tell us why the bags weren’t there until the missing bus actually turned up.
There is no doubt it is a memorable place and an amazing event. Just don’t expect everything to happen as smoothly as it would in a local fun run in Australia. It is Greece, it is different, but that’s all part of the experience. And do make sure to spend a few days in the Greek Islands after its over. By November the tourists have gone and the islands are really peaceful.
I must also say a big thanks to Mari Mar, who managed to make lots of late ticket changes to get me out of China and straight through to Athens with very little fuss and even a transit sleep in Bahrain.