Thursday, 20 August 2015

Xtremely Queer

This is an introduction to a new series of articles in which I look at those lgbt athletes and adventurers who take themselves to the limit and push themselves to the extreme.

In part this series is inspired by research I undertook last year when I was putting together my “Around the World in 80 Gays” series. The most recent of these articles ten days ago featured some extreme athletes – mountaineers and multi-marathon runners. There were many others I would also liked to have mentioned, so many that I had no space for them, so what better place to begin this new “Xtremely Queer” series by coming hot on the trail after my article of Keith Tomlinson, Cason Crane and Todd Henry. Of others that I’ve previously written about I will mention Count Eigil Knuth, the Danish archaeologist who discovered the world’s most northerly civilisation beyond the Arctic Circle.

There are various activities that can be classed as “extreme”. You may have tried some of them yourself. Some are son popular that people have forgotten that they’re actually “extreme”. Marathon running is an example. We should remember that the very first marathon run by Pheidippides in 490 BC ended in his death from exhaustion. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures and film of marathon runners in difficulties during a run.

But the facts behind Pheidippides’ marathon run are not as we may think. Modern scholars believe the story of hi s run is a mixture of other, unconnected, stories that were confused together by authors writing down the event decades after it was supposed to have occurred. It is not now believed that the message that Pheidippides conveyed was not delivered after the Battle of Marathon but before. The confusion may have been created by Lucian, the Roman writer who also described a fantastic journey to the intersex race of human on the Moon.

Pheidippides may have been a real person. He is mentioned in other ancient Greek writings as a kind of long-distance messenger. Over the rough mountain tracks between the ancient city states it would have been quicker to send runners instead of messengers on horseback because the rough terrain would slow the horses down to a walk, even though they could go faster on the flat. It seems there was a special class of messenger, a specially trained long-distance runner, of which Pheidippides was one.

In the full legendary version of his run Pheidippides not only ran the 26 miles to Athens to bring news of the victory at the battle of marathon but he had also run 150 miles to Sparta and back in the previous two days. So it’s no wonder that the story of him collapsing and dying from exhaustion was created.

The first part of the legend is probably true. The esteemed writer Herodotus records Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta on a mission to ask for military help in fighting the Persians at marathon. The next day he ran back to Athens.

One diversion on the mission was an encounter with the shepherd-loving god Pan. Phiedippides was met by Pan on the run to Sparta who asked him why the Athenians hadn’t called upon him for help against the Persians. He had helped them in the past and was willing to help again. So, when Phiedippides returned to Athens 2 days later he passed on his message as well as the one from the Spartans.

The Athenians called upon Pan’s assistance and they firmly believed that the god was with them at the Battle of Marathon and helped in their victory. As a result they built a new shrine to Pan next to the Acropolis and instituted a new annual festival in his honour complete with games, sacrifice and torch race. Even though Pheidippides’ run to Sparta is recorded by Herodotus, the famous run from Marathon is not and doesn’t appear until Lucian wrote it down 500 years later.

A modern ultra-marathon event commemorating Pheidippides’ 150 mile Spartan run is a much more fitting tribute to this long-distance messenger. The event, called the Spartathlon, was created in 1983 after a group of RAF officers proved it was possible. I haven’t been able to ascertain if any lgbt runners have competed but they’ll feature in a future “Xtremely Queer” article if they have.

Before I sign off for today there’s another lgbt link between the Battle of Marathon and sport. Leading the Persian army at the battle was the exiled Athenian tyrant Hippias. He, along with his brother Hipparchus, was one of the most hated rulers of Athens. In 514 BC a plot to assassinate them was hatched up by the couple Harmodius and Aristogeiton. The plan was to kill the tyrants during the Greater Panathenaean Games – the “Gayest Games in Ancient Greece”. I told the story of the assassination here. In brief, Hipparchus was assassinated and Hippias escaped to rule as tyrant alone. Also, as Pheidippides was Athenian we assume that he competed at the Panathenaean Games at some point in his life.

The first regular “Xtremely Queer” article will appear at the weekend with a look at an lgbt pioneer of female mountaineering.

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