Long before COVID-19, writers and sport/broadcast journalists had been facilitating many of us as virtual spectators of sporting events. Mature members of society are likely to have memories of voices bringing the world of sport to them through the transistor radio. Through their play-by-play re-enactments, we "saw" each game. In the Caribbean, it would have been the world of cricket coming from Lord's Cricket Ground. In my country, Nigeria, it was football brought alive in technicolour by one Mr It Is A Goooooooal!!!
My secondary school (population: approx 300), located behind God's back, had only one battery-operated transistor radio that brought us news of the outside world. I was the Radio Prefect for some years and my job was to listen to the news, write it up and stick my rendition on the noticeboard for the rest of the student population to read. That task forced me to cultivate a legible handwriting and to mind my grammar. One had to protect oneself from those students who derived excitement from going around, when no one was looking, to red-line grammatical errors in notices on the board.
On national-game Saturdays, I forgot about BBC and tuned in to NBC (the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation) to listen to the blow-by-blow commentary of Mr It Is A Goooooooal! I hated matches that ended in nil-nil (No prize for correctly guessing why). Today, long after I have forgotten the names of many of the players, I still remember the name of the legendary sport commentator Ishola Folorunso. I say all of this to say, "Every sport needs a storyteller!"
In athletics, the 100 metres sprint is the showstopper. Some years ago, I was in Jamaica to attend university meetings (Yes, there was a time when we had face-to-face, not Zoom, meetings). I was booked to stay at the Pegasus Hotel. I got to the reception hall just as Usain Bolt was about to do his thing. The receptionists were behind the desk but oblivious to the guests waiting to check-in. Naturally, we all turned our attention to the lobby-television that was the focus of their attention. Of course, Usain Bolt won. Which meant that there was at least another five minutes of celebrations before the receptionists could attend to us. Had it been a marathon, the story would have been different. The marathon is a re-enactment of the ebb and flow of life; a story-crafting and a story-telling event, which allows spectators to multi-task while watching.
While the 100 metres race is a flash poem, a burst of energy, the marathon is a novel, requiring endurance, slow release of energy and appropriate pacing from both its creator and its consumers. The story of the marathon is a story by itself. In the popular imagination, the marathon recalls the legendary performance of Philippides (Pheidippides), the fleet-footed runner-messenger who was mandated to run from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news of the victory of the Athenians over the militarily and numerically superior Persian army. He most likely did not wield a sword in the Battle of Marathon and might have been too lowly and inconsequential to know how to ride a horse or to be deserving of a horse. He ran the 25-plus miles to do one and only one thing- tell a story; a story that is one of the shortest in human history: "We've won!" On fulfilling his destiny as a storyteller, he collapsed and died from exhaustion. He had to utter the word to birth the victory in the consciousness of the Athenians. With that, the Athenians could commence their victory celebrations, even before his body could turn cold. By successfully delivering the story, he rescued the Athenian victory from suffering the fate of the giant tree that fell in the forest without anyone to see or hear it fall.
If you believe Herotodus, the Historian, the story of Philippides's run from Marathon to Athens is a ÔNancy story. It never happened. There was the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Philippides ran. Yes. But he ran 140 miles over two days from Athens to Sparta to ask the Spartans to come to the aid of the Athenians in their battle against the Persians. The Spartans could not; they were busy with a religious ritual. The Athenian army fought and won. After beating back the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, they marched back to Athens to defend it against the surviving Spartans who had taken a sea route to go and bombard the unprotected city.
Many decades later, around the 1st century AD, some storyteller came up with the story of the runner-messenger who ran from Marathon to Athens and it was that version that inspired the modern-day Marathon. The truth of the legend (without the human sacrifice at its end) has become the enduring truth, not the truth of history. Which is a good thing. Can you imagine what it would have meant if marathoners had to run 140 miles (and only because the sources are silent on the return leg of Philippides's run to Sparta)? Each Marathon would have had to begin at one Olympics and, hopefully, end by the next Olympics!
Emeritus Professor Funso Aiyejina is Head, St Augustine Academy of Sport and can be reached at Funso.Aiyejina@sta.uwi.edu