By Karolos Grohmann
ATHENS (Reuters) - Long in the shadows of its more famous siblings in New York, London and Berlin, the Athens classic marathon is using one of sport's most evocative anniversaries to boost its international profile.
This year is the 2,500th anniversary of the fabled 490 BC run of messenger Pheidippidis, who was said to have run from Marathon to Athens to announce victory over the invading Persian army.
That run inspired organizers of the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 to revive the distance, retracing the messenger's steps from Marathon to the capital.
Instead of establishing Athens as the most important race of its kind, the revival provided the impetus for hundreds of other marathon races to spring up around the world, many of which have eclipsed Athens in status.
More than a century later, the Athens classic marathon, in its 28th edition this year, is still a mere footnote in the international calendar, a race that carries more sentimental and historical value than competitive weight.
Staged on October 31, between the Chicago and New York marathons -- both international heavyweights with far bigger purses -- the Athens marathon has a number of drawbacks apart from the date itself.
"Our prize money is 20,000 euros, plus 25,000 for a race record," Kostas Panagopoulos, head of the Athens marathon, told Reuters. New York this year will have total prize money of more than $800,000 (628,000 euros).
"Our budget for elite athletes' invitations is 250,000 euros," he said, adding that the other big races had far more cash at their disposal to attract top talent.
The Athens weather confines the race to its autumn spot. A brutal course, with several uphill sections, does not make things easier.
Berlin can count on world-record or near-world-record performances every year with its virtually flat course through the city.
World-record holder Paula Radcliffe can vouch for the toughness of the Athens marathon. She was forced to drop out after some 35 km during the Athens 2004 Olympic race, after suffering in the heat and on the climb toward the city center.
"We have the blessing of having the real race, the actual course which in a way is also a curse," said Panagopoulos.
What was once lush countryside, sprinkled with vineyards and olive groves, is now in parts an ugly urban, suburban sprawl littered with billboards, construction and rubbish along the Marathon to Athens two-lane motorway.
"Calling parts of the route ugly is being very lenient," said Panagopoulos.
Organizers have been trying to raise cash for the route's aesthetic improvement for years but have found little support from the state.
Yet this season's race, which has attracted a record number of participants, will see changes with parts of the motorway's central reservation removed to allow for a smoother start and banners covering up eyesores. More improvements are planned for 2011, including marble kilometer markers.
Some 12,500 athletes, 80 percent of them from abroad, registered in a span of 17 days for the October marathon, compared to 4,000 last year.
"It is the toughest (marathon) course on the planet but on the other hand it is so attractive because it is the real thing," Greek Olympic Committee chief Spyros Kapralos told Reuters. "It's a huge asset for sports and tourism, for the promotion of the country."
Apart from the anniversary race, a number of other events are planned including concerts, exhibitions, medals ceremonies for past marathon greats and a conference of the Association of International Marathon and Distance Runs (AIMS).
The race has been awarded the International Association of Athletics Federations' (IAAF) gold label granted to top road races according to their services, television coverage and the number of elite athletes taking part.
"Service-wise the Athens classic marathon is second to none this year," said Panagopoulos, adding that race organizers would seek closer ties with the New York race held a week later.
"Now that we have grown and entered the big marathons, we can work more closely with New York. There are some ideas floating around," said Panagopoulos, who will first, however, need to convince local crowds to watch the race.
While other cities attract hundreds of thousands of spectators, Athens traditionally has a few thousand lining the streets to the Panathenian stadium, site of the first modern Olympics, where another 10,000 or so usually await the runners.
"We want to start getting fans into the stadium, make them feel they are being part of history," he said.
"You were not there in 490 BC when the messenger ran the course, you were not there in 1896 when (Greek) Spyros Louis won the inaugural Olympic marathon but you can be there at the 2,500-year celebration."
Panagopoulos said the race's historical importance and the recent improvements had attracted far more runners.
"If, for every Muslim, Mecca is a place they have to go once in their life then I believe every marathon runner wants to complete the Athens classic marathon at least once."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)