The 1st marathon runner was Jewish…not Greek

In honor of Friday’s Tel Aviv Marathon, we note that a run described in the bible predates the Greek myth on which modern marathons are based.

Plus: A note from Jewish Runner Hall of Fame.


Tomorrow, Friday morning, thousands of runners will be taking to the streets. Yes, it’s the Tel Aviv Marathon, and the perfect time to debunk some myths about Jews and sports, specifically – running.

Pheidippides (Wikimedia)

Pheidippides delivering the message of victory after the Battle of Marathon, Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869.- Photo: Wikimedia

The first modern marathon was at the first latter-day Olympics, held in Athens in 1896. It was 40 kilometers long, from the town of Marathon to Athens, commemorating the legendary run along roughly that route by one Pheidippides (though some say the real route he ran was substantially shorter). He was a Greek soldier-messenger happily bearing the message of the Greek victory over the Persians at the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. According to legend, upon arriving at Athens and delivering the message the exhausted Pheidippides, keeled over and died.

But the Bible has a similar story that predates the Greek one.

1 Samuel recounts a battle between Israelites and Philistines, that unlike the Greek victory, did not end well for the Hebrews: “And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen.” (4:10)

Worse than the massive loss in life was the death of the leadership and the taking of the Ark. “And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.” (4:11)

It was up to one Hebrew, who unlike Pheidippides is unnamed, only identified by his tribe as “a man of Benjamin,” to run to the capital Shiloh and report to Eli the High Priest. Like Pheidippides he is said to have run: “And the man came in hastily, and told Eli.” (4:14)

The runner told Eli what had happened – “Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken“. (4:17) This was too much for Eli who “fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died.” (4:18)

Some 3,000 years later, in 1968, Yosef Yekutieli, founder of the Maccabiah, the Israeli Football Association, and the Israeli Olympic Committee, measured the route supposedly ran by the “man of Benjamin” – and was astonished to find that it was 42 kilometers long, like the modern marathon, which was standardized in 1921.

Ron Topelberg

The Tel Aviv marathon in 2013.- Photo: Ron Topelberg

Jews on the run

The Jewish religion never stressed athletics. Still, some members of the tribe have reached some very impressive feats in running.

Laurence “Lon” Myers was a Jewish-American runner from Virginia. He dominated short-distance running during the second half of the 19th century, holding the world record in all distances ranging from 50 yards to a mile. He won 28 American championships, though never did win an Olympic medal as he predated the Games.

Abel Richard Kiviat was a Jewish-American mid-distance runner, who broke the world record in 1,500 meters three times in 1912. That same year he was on the American Olympic team at the Stockholm Olympics winning the gold at the 3,000m team race and the silver at the 1,500m race.

In the same Olympics Alvah T. Meyer, a Jewish-American sprinter, won the silver at the 100m race. In 1914 he set the world record in the 60-yard race and in 1915 in the 300-yard race.

Harold Abrahams, a British short distance runner immortalized in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” took the gold in the 100m sprint in the Paris Olympics in 1924, and the silver as a member of the 4X100m relay team. The British relay team was beat by the American team, which had Louis “Pinky” Clarke, a Jewish-American runner, handling the second leg of the race. Clarke set a world record of 41 seconds.

Elias Katz was a Jewish-Finnish runner who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics for the Finnish team in both the 3,000m steeple-race, in which he took the silver and as a member of the 3,000m team race, which took the gold. He would later immigrate to Palestine, dying in the War of Independence.

Fanny (“Bobbie”) Rosenfeld was a Jewish-Canadian sprinter who won the gold medal as a member of the 4X100m relay team and the silver at the 100m race at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. She was also an accomplished basketball, hockey, softball, and tennis player.

Sam Stoller was a Jewish-American sprinter, who is most famous for being excluded from the American 4X100 relay team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, apparently to appease Hitler. He tied the world record at the 60-yard dash.

Wikimedia Commons

Irena Szewińska, the only athlete (male or female) to have held a world record in the 100m, 200m and the 400m events.- Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Irena Szewińska is Polish-Jewish athlete winner of a great deal of Olympic medals in several Olympics and fields. Gold as a member of the 4X100m relay team at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, winning the silver at the at 200m race (as well as another silver at the long jump). In the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City she won the gold at the 200m run and bronze at the 100m race. She took the bronze at the 1972 Munich Olympics 200m race and then won the gold at the 400m race at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Maria Leontyavna Itkina was a Jewish-Russian runner who set many records including the 60m, 100m, 400m and other short distance runs during the 1960s. Although she participated in several Olympics she never received a medal – placing fourth four times.

Gerry Ashworth, a Jewish-American runner from Massachusetts, took the gold in the 4X100m relay race in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He also tied the world record in the 60-yard dash.

Ödön Bodor, a Jewish-Hungarian runner, won the bronze medal together with his team at the first Olympic Medley relay at the 1908 London Olympics.

Deena Michelle Kastor is a Jewish-American long-distance runner, who holds the U.S. records for women in the marathon, half marathon, 15K, 8K and 5K. She won the bronze medal at marathon at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Zhanna Pintusevich-Block was a Jewish-Ukrainian runner, who won first, second and third place at several world championships in the 100m and 200m sprints in the late 90s and the early naughts. Though she competed in three Olympic Games, she never received a medal.


View original HAARETZ publication at: