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Athletics: Why Polias has to lead the Greeks to their Athens vision via The Mall

The Olympic marathon will have a special resonance. It starts today

Nikos Polias has already trodden in the mythical wake of Pheidippides and in the historical footsteps of Spiridon Louis. On the stretch of road from Marathon to Athens, he has won the Greek marathon championship seven times and the annual Athens Marathon outright on five occasions.

As a native of the Athenian port of Piraeus, and as the leading Greek marathon man of the 21st century, it would be the pinnacle of his running life to lead the home challenge in the men's Olympic race on the original marathon course on 29 August. To do so, however, he must first take a detour via Blackheath and The Mall.

The home country of Marathon, the place, and the marathon, the race, has chosen London as the venue for its Olympic trial. The 10 leading Greek men and six leading Greek women will be among the 33,000-strong field in the Flora London Marathon today. "I can understand that it may sound strange," Polias mused on Friday, sitting in his hotel room overlooking Tower Bridge. "But the International Association of Athletics Federations has set a qualifying standard of 2hr 15min for the Olympic marathon, and in Greece there is not a course suitable for running such a fast time, or an event with such good competition as there will be in London."

Greece, of course, does have the original marathon route, from Marathon to the Panathinaikon Stadium in Athens, but the road is under reconstruction at present and, in any case, it is too severe to facilitate fast times. Polias was the first Greek finisher in the annual Athens Classical Marathon on the notoriously hilly course in November, clocking 2hr 23min 16sec in eighth place. The race was won by Cavo Zarebayo of Tanzania in 2hr 16min 59sec. "Even if the classical course was ready, we couldn't run under 2hr 15min on it," Polias said. "We don't have a flat course in Greece.

"Our national federation decided all Greek runners should compete at the same time, in the same circumstances, and asked us to choose the race. I came to London in 1999 and ran well, and after speaking to the rest of the runners we decided we could try to achieve the performance here. The best men under 2hr 15min and the best women under 2hr 37min will qualify."

Polias finished 25th in London five years ago. His best marathon time, 2hr 13min 53sec, ranks him 25th on the start list today. As the No 1 marathon runner from the homeland of the marathon, though, he is proud of his record and his reputation in Greece. A full-time athlete and a member of the Olympiakos Sporting Club, the 33-year-old is also proud of the marathon tradition that stretches back beyond the original Olympic marathon in Athens in 1896, which was won by a local shepherd.

Fuelled by red wine and an Easter egg handed to him by his stepfather along the route, Spiridon Louis emerged triumphant from an event that was held to honour the run made, or so legend has it, by the messenger Pheidippides in 490BC. Pheidippides was said to have brought news of the Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon before dropping dead of exhaustion at the gates of Athens. The tale was almost certainly apocryphal; it was not recorded until 600 years later.

The story of Louis's victory, however, is a matter of historical fact. He won by seven minutes, in a time of 2hr 58min 50sec, and was lauded as a national hero. His name even entered the Greek language, in the expression "egine Louis" - to "become Louis", or run quickly.

Polias hopes to live up to it on the streets of London today. "For all of us in the Greek marathon squad, running the Olympic marathon on the road to Athens is a special dream," he said. "We have the chance to compete in front of our own people on the original marathon course. The marathon is part of our history. It's something more than just a race to us."

There have been fears that Greece might lose its race to have its marathon course ready in time for the two Olympic races - the women's event on 22 August and the men's seven days later. The project to widen the route has fallen seriously behind schedule, but Polias is confident that the work will be finished on time.

"There is some work in progress," he said, "but there is not a problem. There is no question that it will be ready. The only problem is that, for the time being, it is not possible for us to train on the course."

Still, if he can make it from Blackheath to The Mall inside the qualifying schedule today, no 2004 Olympian will know the course better than the No 1 marathon man from the home of the marathon.