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Welcome to Marathon, Greece

MARATHON, Greece -- Runners in the first Olympic marathon in
1896 spent the night in this hamlet's single "wretched" inn and
downed a couple of beers before the race. Competitors at the Athens
Games can stay at Club Med and pick up a Coke at the McDonald's
drive-thru.

The dirt track the first runners followed has been replaced with
a four-lane highway. Pine forests and olive groves have given way
to strip malls and urban sprawl. Villagers have traded traditional
foustanella costumes for T-shirts and low-rise jeans.

The marathon is returning home to its namesake village northeast
of Athens, the starting point of a race that ends in the capital at
the same, marble Panathinaiko Stadium where the first modern games
were held 108 years ago. The rest of the 26.2-mile route is
unrecognizable.

And yet one thing has remained unchanged: Greeks' love affair
with the long-distance race, which began in 1896 when a farmer
named Spyridon Louis pulled away from the 16 other runners to give
Greece its first and only victory in the Olympic marathon.

"All Greece is very happy that the Olympics are here, but
especially about the marathon," said 87-year-old Yannis Politis,
who bragged that he met Louis as a teenager.

Women will race on Sunday; the men, on Aug. 29, finishing just
before the closing ceremony.

The marathon commemorates the path of the warrior Phidippides,
who is said to have run from the battlefield in Marathon to Athens
in 490 B.C. with word that the Greeks had defeated the Persians.
According to legend, he cried out "We won!" and promptly dropped
dead of exhaustion.

The marathon has no roots in the ancient Olympics, whose longest
race was 2.87 miles. But when Greece held the first modern
Olympics, organizers eager to honor the myth traced a route from a
wooden bridge in Marathon to the stadium.

The village of Marathon had little to offer beyond a couple of
small farmhouses and perhaps a tavern.

The 1884 edition of "Murray's Hand-Book Greece," preserved in
Athens' stately Gennadeios rare books library, describes a rough
ride to Marathon, where "a wretched khan (inn) affords
accommodation to the traveler for the night."

Today, Marathon is a quiet, pleasant town with tourist shops
selling replicas of ancient vases and a small museum with exhibits
about marathons around the world. The tile roofs of older houses
sag in the sun, while concrete apartments sit smartly amid gardens
and vineyards.

Beside the town's soccer field, spikes bearing the Athens 2004
logo are hammered into the ground to establish the start of a
painted blue line that leads to Athens. A grassy ridge offers
spectators a view of the runners.

Just outside Marathon, the line makes its only detour -- a loop
to the left that circles the knoll commemorating Greek soldiers
fallen in Marathon's ancient battle. A statue of their commander,
Gen. Miltiades, was erected last month.

Continuing the route, an alley to the left heads into Club Med
Athenia, where white stucco villas preside over a gravelly beach. A
McDonald's -- the first of three along the route -- invites children
to participate in the "Kids McAthlon" by getting their parents to
buy them a Happy Meal.

The route hardly resembles the one Louis covered in 2 hours, 58
minutes, 50 seconds.

"He would have seen pine trees and vineyards -- those are really
the only two things," Kitroeff said. "Perhaps a couple of small
farmhouses. No shops -- nothing at all."

Today, runners could pause at a dealership to buy a Peugeot. Or
a Mitsubishi, a Toyota, a Mercedes, a Renault, a Fiat, a Hyundai or
a Volkswagen. They face the agonizing choice of where to get a
facial: the Estee Lauder Beauty Salon, or the Dior Beauty Shop,
whose storefront also offers a "Bikini Celluli-Diet."

At Nea Makri, a series of strip malls begins -- and continues
along Marathon Avenue, almost uninterrupted, all the way to Athens.

Lefteris Mavrikos, a 70-year-old farmer, said his family helped
settle the area in 1922, 26 years after the first marathon. Taking
a break from a game of cards at a coffee shop, he said inhabitants
spent the first years living in tents amid a wild forest.

Now, there is a movie theater, a "Smile Park" playground and
three pet shop franchises. The "Beautiful Night" nightclub offers
a view of the road near Zoumberi, and a shop in Agios Andreas
suggests installing a Jacuzzi.

Near the port of Rafina, there is a statue of "the marathon
man," presumably Philippides. "We won!" reads the plaque beneath
the bronze figure, who reaches forward to hand over a scroll.

In Pikermi, there is a statue of Louis -- who, strangely, is
depicted naked -- facing a church and a store where bikinis are on
sale.

In Pallini, where Spyridon Louis would have seen only pine
forests, there is now a pharmaceutical factory and a Pizza Athina,
although Domino's delivers as well.

The landscape is increasingly urban, with no break in the
development as the road eases into Agia Paraskevi and then Athens
itself. Police officers in fluorescent yellow vests try to clear
traffic jams as drivers lean on their horns. A man with a squeegee
cleans windshields at a stoplight.

Louis would have seen none of this, of course.

"The route passed through countryside right up to the last few
hundred yards," said historian Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith.
Ambelokipi -- now a bustling neighborhood of downtown Athens -- "was
still a small village."

Ambelokipi now hosts the U.S. Embassy, cement blocks lining the
marathon route to guard against car bombs. The newly renovated
Hilton Hotel rises high into the sky, and five major hospitals
grace the avenue.

But the route still ends where it did when Louis triumphantly
entered the stadium to the incredulous shouts of "Hellene!" -- "a
Greek" -- and a cloud of doves.

Tourists take snapshots before the brilliant lights of the
U-shaped arena, the flags of 202 Olympic delegations flapping from
its marble stands.

The marathon runners will be back, and Greeks are hoping another
Louis will emerge from their midst.

"He wasn't a trained athlete; he just ran," Thanassis Ginosati
said with pride.

Ginosati, 78, sat in a plastic chair at his gas station in front
of the Louis statue in Pikermi. The retired farmer closed the gas
station years ago when his wife died, and now spends much of the
day watching traffic go by. He said he'd be sitting right there
when the runners go by.

"Of course I'll be watching," he said.

He paused, leaned back in his chair, and added: "Where else
would I go?"