It is that time of the year again. On April 16, more than 25000 people run the Boston Marathon and nearly half a million people cheer them on along the 26.2 mile course; a true display of amity, order, and elegance. I am returning to enjoy the unique experience. However, I am not as excited as I was in 2010. In fact, there is a weight on my heart.
Usually, we runners work hard and train long in order to qualify to run the race. And then after the qualification, we train hard and long to put up a good show not only for the crowd there but for all the curious eyes of our family, friends, and fellow runners in our communities. Last time I went prepared for the race.
What I was not prepared for was the expression of a sort of racism in the official race publication of the Boston Athletic Association that organizes the race.
Usually on the night before a marathon or an ultra-marathon race, we eat early and try to go to bed early. To relax and ease ourselves into asleep, we often read something inspiring or the information materials given to us at the race expo to make sure we have all the necessary information.
The night before the 2010 race, I was doing just that. In the middle of the official publication of the Boston Marathon Association, the “114th Boston Marathon Official Program” I came across an article that woke me up completely, and indeed distressed me.
The program dated April 19, 2010 featured an article entitled “Battle of Marathon” (page123-126) that I found highly inaccurate and disturbingly racist and truly in violation of the spirit of the sport which Boston Athletic Association has championed over so many productive years.
A large blurb in blue fonts reads “Lord knows where we would be if the Athenians hadn’t pulled the upset against the Persians. We might be living in a world without voting booths or 26.2-mile races” (Page 23).
As a professor of Near Eastern Studies, I found the article inaccurate in many respects but even if such a run by a brave soldier occurred and even if Greek democracy was saved by not losing that battle (notwithstanding that the entire war was eventually won by the Persians), we cannot conclude that current western democracy is the result of that victory. After the fall of ancient Greece and Rome, Europe went through a lengthy period of retarded growth and backward thinking (the Dark Ages) and the Inquisition to name just a couple of “the West’s” less glorious historical events. Meanwhile, to the benefit of all later advanced civilization, ancient Greek heritage was in fact preserved in the languages of Persian and Arabic and put into active use in the Middle Eastern Golden Age. European copies were often literally burned by illiterates as firewood and would have otherwise been lost forever. Later translations of those materials back into Latin and other European languages helped set the stage for the rise of both the renaissance and the enlightenment which were the real catalysts of the current dominance of democracy in the West.
To be sure, back in that era, two civilizations covered most of what constituted the world. The Greeks were powerful to the north of the Mediterranean Sea and the Persians were powerful to the east. These two great powerhouses had numerous wars and each war included countless battles often extending over many years. Greek historians have penned countless statements about the quality and talent of their Persian foes. Later the Bible provided a testimony to the prowess of Cyrus the Great, ruler of Persia. Persians too wrote respectfully about their rival. Neither of these powers was necessarily or thoroughly evil. In more recent times France, England, Germany, Poland, and Russian have fought their neighbors and rivals in Europe. We do not judge the entirety of any of those countries as evil because of these historic skirmishes.
The article cites faulty, non-scholarly, or highly populist authors and documentaries to make its arguments. It even refers to the racist movie 300 to make several points. The movie was created based on a comic book. No mention is made about the fact that some scholars argue that the story behind the runner delivering the news of victory in the battle was fictionalized in Rome six centuries later.
The Persians, in any event, never held grudges against the Greeks or against Alexander who burned their capital (the ruins of Persepolis is a tourist destination today), libraries, and artifacts. In fact, during the reign of the second Pahlavi king, Iran and Greece enjoyed the friendliest of relations. Even under today’s Islamic Republic [which many Persians view as advocating a foreign religious ideology], Greece has maintained close relations with Iran.
Finally, as a frequent marathon and ultra-marathon runner I am perplexed about the entire intention behind the publication of the article. I disagree with the author’s conclusion (another ill-conceived blurb) that “If you’re a marathoner, it’s natural to wonder whether the proliferation of 26.2-mile races would have happened without the Battle of Marathon” (Page 126). First, none of the many runners I know are remotely aware of the story or attach too much importance to it. Finally, many races and competitions have proliferated without any momentous stories behind them.
I came back home and wrote to the staff at BAA but they did not answer me. Then I found the email addressed of the director and every member of the board of the directors and wrote to all of them expressing my distress and concerns. None every answered.
And then I faced another essential question: could I and should I run the Boston Marathon again? It took me a long time to come to a conclusion. Yes, I will run it and this time I will write the following words somewhere on my bib number: Persian for Peace. But please, even if this were all true, the battle occurred more than 2500 years ago, time to move forward.