True story: Over the last year, several acquaintances have told me that they are training to run a marathon. The conversation to follow invariably went something like this:

Me: Are you CRAZY?

Them: What do you mean crazy?

Me: Don't you realize how horrible that is for you?

Them: Uh …

Me: Your body runs out gas and starts to consume itself in order to finish the race.

Them: It's not that bad.

Me: It's incredibly harmful.

Them: You're just out of shape.

Me: Look, the first guy to run the marathon, they guy the race is NAMED FOR, died.

Them: (Blank look.)

So here it is for all you doubters. In 490 BC, a man ran over 26 miles from the plain of Marathon to Athens to announce to the residents of the city that their army had defeated the invading Persians. According to Plutarch, that messenger, "running with his armor hot from the battle and falling in the doors of the prytaneis, could only say 'Be happy! We have won!' and immediately expired."

If you want to watch the 2004 Summer Olympics, which begin this week in Athens, with more than a vague sense of how the original games differed from the TV version (they didn't have synchronized swimming then, right?), you might want to take a look at two books by Stephen G. Miller—one brand new, from Yale University Press, the other reissued for the occasion by the University of California Press.

Certainly a time-traveling Greek would be puzzled by the 21st-century version of the games. Now there are summer and winter Olympics, team sports, contests that require a high degree of interpretation (e.g., ice skating; witness the vote-swapping controversy in the last winter games that almost robbed the Canadian team of a gold medal), insane long-range contests of endurance, and women's sports.

That last ...

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