The connection between Nike, Marathons, and Ancient Greece

When history and sport make a lovechild

6–6–2017, Adil (published 6–27–17)

When Leify and I were sprinting through Athens in the 4 waking hours we had there, we took a walking tour in which a history nerd told us a cool story. Maybe you guys have already heard parts of it, but thought it would cool to elaborate and pass it on.

The Greco-Persian Wars lasted from 499 BC to 449 BC. As a disclaimer, most of our knowledge of the Greco-Persian wars comes from the Greek dude Herodotus (sometimes called the “father of history”), but some historians do think he made up a lot of the story. There will always be doubt, but multiple archaeological finds have since confirmed many parts of Herodotus’s story. I won’t describe the whole time period, but lets dip into a little background.

It all started with the Ionian revolt. In this first phase of the Wars, the Athenians and Eretrians (Eretria was another famous ancient Greek city-state, like Athens and Sparta) sent troops into Ionia (in present-day Turkey) to overthrow Persian rule. In 498 BC, the Greeks successfully captured the important capital city of Sardis and burned it to the ground, but they were then forced to retreat with heavy losses. This pesky Ionian revolt was finally mostly silenced by 494 BC. After this little showdown, Persian King Darius I vowed to annihilate Athens and Eretria. As the story goes, he even had one of his servants come to him repeat, “Master, remember the Athenians” three times every night before he started dinner.

Intense. Darius grew to see the multiple Greek city-states as a threat to the stability of his empire, and so he expanded his target and decided to conquer all of Greece.

Fast forward to the first Persian invasion of Greece. In 490 BC, Darius sent a naval force across the Aegean to take over the Cyclades (the islands where Lefko and I just vacationed) and then finally make the vengeful attacks on Athens and Eretria. They succeeded in the islands and indeed captured and burned Eretria, and so they proceeded towards Athens.

The Persian forces landed in a bay in the nearby town of Marathon, where one of the most famous battles of all time took place.

According to modern estimates, the Greek forces included about 9–10k Athenians and 1k reinforcements from nearby Plataea. The Persians, on the other hand, had about 3x as many soldiers: ~25k infantry and 1k cavalry (though some modern historians have proposed estimates as high as 100k; ancient sources give numbers as wild and wide ranging as 200k to 600k). They also had 100k+ armed fellas on boats, but they saw little action because they mostly defended the ships. Speaking of, the Persians had 200+ supply ships and 600 triremes (a type of ancient war ship).

So, the Athenians marched to Marathon. Their first move was the block off the 2 main exits from the plain of Marathon, thus preventing Persian forces from moving inland. At the same time, they sent Athens’s greatest runner, Pheidippides (named Philippides in some accounts), to Sparta to request backup. Ya boi miraculously ran the ~150 miles to Sparta over the course of 2 days (arriving the day after he left). Unfortunately for the Athenians, Pheidippides arrived during a religious festival for the Spartans, and he was informed that Spartans could not march to war until the full moon rose — there could be no reinforcements for at least 10 days.

Instead of backing down while being outnumbered 3:1 by the mighty Persian army that had just crushed all of the Greek islands and Eritrea, the Athenians decided to hold their ground. For five days, the armies stood in stalemate at the plain of Marathon. Around day 5, the Greeks finally attacked the Persians (perhaps because they believed the Persians were about to attack, or because they thought their cavalry was temporarily absent; it’s unclear, but it seemingly would have been more advantageous to wait the full 10 days for the Spartans). The Greek soldiers were called hoplites and were more heavily armed than the Persian soldiers, though they are also referred to as “amateur soldiers” without very sophisticated training.

Considering this lack of training, it is surprising that the Athenians used an advanced military tactic in their attack: they purposely left their center weak and reinforced their flanks. Some believe that the Greeks only thinned their center in order to match the length of the Persian line, not that they did this as a brilliant tactical move. But regardless, it proved supremely effective: the Greek flanks were so strong that they were able to successfully cut down the Persian flanks and fully encircle the Persian center, causing the Persians to panic* and flee backwards to their ships. The Athenians had cleverly chosen the spot for this battle, as it was covered in not only mountainous terrain but also marshes and swamps. Retreating Persians were unaware of this and an unknown number of them drowned. The end result was a resounding success for the Greeks. Today, this tactic is known as a double envelopment or pincer movement in military lingo, and the Battle of Marathon may have been its first use. It was later utilized by Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, and the Nazis.

[*Mini FF: the word “panic” also has its roots in the Battle of Marathon. One legend states that the Greek god Pan came to Pheidippides during his running to/from Sparta, asking why the Athenians did not honor him. In awe, Pheidippides promised that they would do so from then on. In battle, Pan apparently felt that the Athenians would keep their promise, and so instilled a powerful, frenzied fear into the Persian hearts — panic.]

In the immediate aftermath of the Battle (or perhaps even just before the battle), the Persian ships started sailing around Cape Sounion to attack Athens directly. In the pic below, you can see they would start sailing south from Marathon to go around the horn and hit Athens.

Realizing this, the Athenians marched back as quickly as possible to their city, which had no real defense as the entire army had gone to Marathon. The Athenians arrived in time to prevent a Persian landing, and so the defeated Persians turned their ships around and set sail back to Asia.

In a real joj moment, the Spartans army arrived the next day, having amazingly marched the 150 miles in only three days. They trotted around the battlefield and agreed that the Athenians had done a swell job protecting all of Greece.

This is actually the end of the real history of the Battle of Marathon, but theres a cool legend (or is it real??; first documented by Plutarch in first century AD… prolly nah) to go with it. As the story goes, there were some Athenians that were paid off by the Persians to convince the Athenian cityfolk to surrender when the Persian ships arrived from around the cape, because the Athenian army had been “defeated” at Marathon (this is what the historian who gave our walking tour said). If we are to assume no corruption, an alternate possibility is that the city fathers would immediately surrender the city to the Persian ships once they saw them coming. To avoid this and ensure that word of victory reached Athens before the Persian ships, re-enter the legend himself, Pheidippides. Despite having recently run 300 miles to/from Sparta and fighting all day in heavy armor, he was sent once again to run from Marathon back to Athens to give news of the Greek victory — a distance of 26 miles. Pheidippides valiantly sprints back, reaches the Athens assembly, and uses his last breath to exclaim, “We have won!”…or in Greek, “Nenikēkamen!” before collapsing to his death from exhaustion. Because of his heroic run, Athens stood strong. The Battle of Marathon was critical in history — it marked the first time the Persian army was no longer seen as invincible, and it allowed for the ushering in of Classical Greek civilization (including democracy) and the basis for Western civilization as we know it.

Now, Lefko and I were told that this exclamation of “Nenikēkamen” was the inspiration for the name of global brand that is Nike. However, as you probably know, “Nike” is also simply the name for the winged Greek goddess of victory, which is widely cited as being the basis for the company name (couldn’t find anything online that verifies this whole story with Pheidippides serving as inspiration). Regardless, something Greek inspired first employee Jeff Johnson to suggest Nike as a company name to his boss, Phil Knight, who reluctantly agreed (luckily choosing this over other bricc ideas like “Bengal” or “Dimension Six”). So next time you see the iconic swoosh, you can think back to Pheidippides, ancient Greece, and the saving of Western civilization.

Side FF: In 1971, Portland State University student Carolyn Davidson had a chance encounter with assistant-professor Phil Knight, who later offered her $2/hour to design a logo for his new startup. Davidson needed extra bucks to take oil painting classes, so she accepted, and she was eventually given a whopping $35 for her work on the Swoosh. In 1983, the company threw a party in her honor and gifted her a golden Swoosh ring with an embedded diamond + 500 stocks in Nike, which have since split into more shares. She never sold any of these, and they were estimated to be worth $643k in 2011, and much more today (potentially upwards of $1 million).

Of course, this second run by Pheidippides is the famed one that has inspired the modern marathon race. Today, people all over the world run the 26.2 miles to commemorate the run of Pheidippides, and it is always honored as the last event of the Olympics. However, it seems the more historically accurate tribute would be ~150 miles, matching the first and more-historically-accurate run to Sparta. In fact, the Spartathlon is exactly that — an annual 153 mile race from Athens to Sparta.

Side FF 2: Nike’s famous “Just do it” slogan also has an interesting underlying story— apparently, it was inspired by the last words of the infamous Portland area murderer Gary Gilmore, who said “Let’s do this” before being executed by firing squad in 1977 .


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