Ancient Athletics – The Events

The modern Olympics have a raft of events that would have had the ancient Greeks discombobulated. There were no aquatic events, ball games or team sports. Racewalking and beach volleyball would have been a mystery.

That said, the ancient Greeks had a few events and customs that would seem equally utterly bizarre in Rio 2016. For a start, all athletes competed naked unless stated otherwise. No brightly coloured team shell suits or lycra shorts, but some athletes did wear a kynodesme (“dog leash”) to compete in. This consisted of a leather cord that was tied around the protruding tip of the foreskin (the akroposthion) and pulled up to be tied to a waistband or the base of the penis. The idea was to prevent the foreskin riding up and exposing the glans of the penis. That was an absolute taboo, only slaves and barbarians didn’t worry about flashing their glans accidentally. Regular use of a kynodesme possibly permanently stretched the akroposthion which would have pleased the wearer as a large akropisthion was considered highly desirable. There may have been some practical aspects of wearing a kynodesme whilst competing but comfort seems to have been very much the secondary purpose. They were also worn by men of other professions whilst in public, such as actors. Even in private situations like drinking parties, respectable men would be wearing their kynodesme, so seeing athletes wearing them during their events would not only have been unremarkable but expected.

Track

Races were the oldest events at the Olympic Games. In fact, the first 13 Olympics consisted of a single foot race called the stadion. It simply involved sprinting from one end of the track to the other. The length was standard across all Greek games and was set at 600 feet (mythically determined by Heracles.) The length of a foot varied from region to region; the tracks at Olympia and Isthmia are 192 modern metres long. At Nemea the track is a more gentle 178 metres and competitors in the Pythian Games at Delphi had a mere 177 metres to run. The word stadion not only referred to the track but as a standard of measurement for 600 feet.

The stadium at Delphi. Stone seats were added by Herodes Atticus in the 2nd C AD

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At the Olympics the winner of the stadion gave his name to the entire Games and of that Olympiad period of four years. Everyone in the Greek world knew that Coroebus of Elis was the first Olympic victor (776 BC.) If you were to ask an ancient Greek when the Battle of Thermopylae took place, he would tell you it was the year when Astyalus of Croton won the stadion race for the third time in a row at the 75th Olympiad (480 BC.) Even late into antiquity a Greek would think that dating everything by the birth of an obscure eastern preacher would be a bizarre idea.

The diaulos was added at the 14th Olympic Games in 724 BC and simply doubled the length of the stadion requiring the athletes to turn at the far end and run back to the starting line.

At the 15th Olympics four years later the dolichos race was added to the programme. This race was not a sprint, lasting a whopping 20 stadia (10 full laps clocking in at 12,000 feet.)

The ancient stadium at Olympia is 192 metres in length, a distance said to be set by Heracles. #igersgreece

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So far, so recognisable. One race that is quite odd to modern spectators is the hoplitodromos race added in 520 BC at the 65th Olympic Games.

Each runner wore a helmet and greaves and carried a shield, elements of the full armour of a hoplite infantryman. The race made perfect sense to the ancient Greeks; armies were made up of citizen soldiers who needed to be able to display speed and agility in heavy armour. Shields weighed 7 kg alone (standard weight shields were kept at Olympia in the Temple of Hera to prevent cheating. The helmet and greaves would add another 3kg and the weight was not exactly conveniently distributed for running long distances in scorching summer heat. The race appealed to the war mongering Greeks who, when they weren’t fighting invaders like the Persians were constantly squabbling with rival city states. The race had what modern HR managers would call ‘transferable skills;’ with Greek hoplites fiercely charging at a Persian army at Marathon only three decades after the first hoplitodromos race.

Contact Sports

If the runners were lean and agile, the wrestlers and boxers were enormous. With shaven heads (to prevent hair pulling,) and flaunting scars from previous fights, these men were formidable. After qualifying rounds before the Games began, the cream of the crop would fight in out before the braying crowds. At Olympia, 16 athletes qualified for each event meaning that the victor would have to win four fights in a single hot, summer afternoon. There were three contact events and two classes, men and boys.

Pugmachia

OK, so the modern Games have boxing. What the boxing in our Games also has is a long list of rules. Not so much in Greece.

There were no boxing rings to fight in, the contenders used the entire stadium. Bouts ran until a boxer signalled defeat (by raising his middle finger of his right hand,) or until someone was knocked unconscious. Greek boxers only aimed for the head and were allowed to strike in any way, whether it be a fist, open palm or jabbing fingers. A good boxer would use a mixture of punches to keep his opponent on the back foot, only gouging is forbidden. If a boxer fell to the ground, his opponent was allowed to keep punching him. All holds were banned.

There were no weight classes and it was entirely possible to see a wiry, lean man take on a human mountain, although Greek boxers were generally thickly built with broad, muscled shoulders and huge arms. Opponents were drawn at random, so tactics played an important part of each bout. A smaller, faster man may try to tire out a larger foe and wait to land a knock out punch, a heavy man may attempt to get his opponent down onto the ground and simply punch him repeatedly until he surrenders.

Ancient boxers didn’t fight their bouts in rounds with a short break for a drink and a pep talk from their trainer. Fights were continuous and lasted as long as they needed to. Neither did they use large, padded gloves. Ancient boxers wound 4 metres of leather softened with oil called himantes around each hand and wrist, leaving the fingers free. This protects the hands of the wearer but certainly not the skin of the opponent. Himantes caused such stinging cuts that they were nicknamed ‘ants.’ Certain boxers boasted that their faces were still unmarred because of their great skill. One, named Meloncomas of Caria,  remained undefeated for his entire career without ever throwing or receiving a punch, relying on nimble footwork and the ability to keep his guard up for up to two days at a time. Otherwise, veteran boxers would have been instantly recognisable from their cauliflower ears, broken noses and numerous scars, perhaps with a few teeth knocked out for good measure. Eurydamas of Cyrene lost every single one of his teeth in a single fight. Apparently an aristocratic Roman entered the Olympic Games and when he got home was disowned by his family, losing his inheritance. He was so badly disfigured during his bout his family didn’t recognise him.

 

The fact that all blows were aimed at the head made boxing the most deadliest of all ancient contact sports. There is a memorial at Olympia from the 1st century AD to a boxer known as the Camel of Alexandria. It reads

He prayed to Zeus, “Give me victory or give me death!” And here in Olympia he died, boxing in the Stadium at the age of 35. Farewell!”

Pale

After oiling their hulking bodies and dusting themselves with coloured powders (to provide grip,) ancient wrestlers entered the stadium for their chance at glory. Wrestling was generally quite sedate in comparison with boxing and pankration, with far more rules to ensure a graceful(ish) match. Victory was earned by throwing an opponent three times so that either his shoulders, back or hip touched the ground. Punches were forbidden as were kicks, although tripping up opponents was allowed (unlike modern ‘Greco-Roman’ wrestling.) There were several throws and above-waist holds in the repertoire and skill was just as important as brute strength. Perhaps moreso, as conserving energy was essential if an athlete was to have the stamina to succeed in successive rounds.

Pankration

Pankration was a mixture of boxing and wrestling with more possibilities and fewer rules. To a modern eye, pankration is utterly savage. To the ancient audience it was a highlight of the Games and a masterful display of skill, strength and determination.

Pankration needed a special court as the stadium floor was too hard. Instead it was played out on freshly turned earth, muddied with water until it was sticky, nicknamed keroma – ‘beeswax.’. Pankratiasts fought naked and didn’t bother with the leather himantes. 

A bout didn’t end after three throws. The only way to win is for your opponent to concede, although sometimes even the death of a opponent did not secure a victory. Holds (including below waist,) arm and head locks, punches to the body as well as head and kicks were all allowed. Throws were used liberally and strangulation was seen as a perfectly logical way to ensure an opponent submitted. Genitals were a legitimate target not only for punches but for twists. The only forbidden moves are biting and eye-gouging.

With such freedom came a host of fighting styles within the event and the random lots must have made bouts between famous pankratiasts with differing techniques a must-see event. Determination and the endurance of pain were seen as honourable in the eyes of spectators and, as we often do now, crowds would sometimes cheer for underdogs if they showed fortitude.

To die fighting was often seen as preferable to admitting defeat and those who chose to die rather than give up were greatly admired. It was a brutal sport for men who lived in brutal times and pankratiasts were among the most revered of the celebrity athletes.

There have been several attempts to get a watered down version of pankration introduced as an event in the modern Olympics in recent years, hopefully with fewer broken bones and dislocated limbs…

Pentathlon

Little has changed from the ancient pentathlon to the modern. Athletes of diverse talents competed in the discus, long jump, javelin, stadion race and wrestling.

Discus

This is a mid 2ndC AD marble copy of the c. 450 BC bronze original #Discobolus ("Discus thrower") statue by #Myron. Many copies were made, this is the most complete. Adolf #Hitler loved this very statue so much that he bought it in 1938 and displayed it in the Munich Glyptothek as a symbol of Aryan perfection (it was returned to Italy a decade later.) It shows a #Greek #athlete drawing back his #discus just before he starts his throw. Myron was famous for his sculptures of athletes and his style was part of an art revolution in ancient Greece, moving away from stiff poses and simple bodies to show something more fluid and idealised. Now on display at the #MuseoNazionaleRomano at the #PalazzoMassimo #igersrome #igersroma #ig_rome #ig_roma #olympics

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The ancient discus event was not the same as our modern revival.

Firstly, ancient athletes had to be far more accurate with their aim. A modern stadium has a looped track that echoes an ancient hippodrome, the stadiums at Greek sanctuaries usually had straight tracks where sprinters simply turned around a post at the far end.

So in modern stadiums there is a large space in the middle of the track where it’s possible to hold other events and discus throwers have a 35° wedge of field to throw into. Ancient pentathletes had to throw far more accurately as they had only the straight track to aim for, otherwise they risked lobbing a huge piece of metal into the crowd (which wasn’t unheard of.)

There were no standard weights across Greece and athletes needed to adjust their technique for their location. Olympia apparently had the heaviest although none of the three official Olympic discuses have been discovered, so we can’t know exactly how heavy they were. Discuses found across Greece range from 3 to 9 pounds, making the modern discus look modest at 4.4lb.

You wouldn’t see an ancient pentathlete spin as he started his throw. He would stand with his right leg back and raise the discus to eye level in his right hand. He would then twist his body backwards to the right with his weight on the right leg. As he swung his right arm to throw the discus he would transfer his weight to his left leg for extra propulsion. The ancient method allows more control but a shorter distance, perhaps half that of an Olympic discus thrower today.

Competitors would have a few attempts (some Games allowed three, others 5) and their best distance would be marked. Distances don’t seem to have been measured and recorded for posterity, only being the best on the day mattered.

Javelin 

Most Greek men would have been somewhat proficient with a javelin. Javelins were used for hunting and also were a standard aspect of military training in a world where all male citizens were expected to fight for their polis. Athletic javelins were smaller, about 2 metres long and thinner.

Unlike the discus, ancient pentathletes threw their javelins far further than modern pentathletes. This is because they used an ankule, a thin leather thong that was wound around the javelin at the middle with a loop at one end. When the athlete held the javelin he hooked two fingers into the loop. As he threw the javelin the ankule, tethered to his hand, would cause the shaft to spin as it flew forward. This improved aim in the same way a gun with a rifled barrel will shoot straighter than one that is smooth.

The competitors each took a run up being careful not to cross the starting line of the track. Again, the best attempt was marked.

Long Jump

A skamma 15 metres long was created on the stadion floor close to where the judges were seated by raking up and moistening the hard ground. Historians are apparently at odds as to whether ancient long jumpers took a run up or jumped from a standing position. Two things make me plump for the latter:

  • Vase paintings depict long athletes mid-jump with their feet both together.
  • Ancient long jumpers held weights (called halteres,) which they swung backward and forward before they leapt to gain momentum.

Modern athletes have tested these weights and they only give an advantage when used from a standing jump, usually hindering a running one.

The weights weren’t apparently regulated and each athlete had his own personalised pair, carefully weighted to suit his strength and technique. Halteres have been found in stone, lead and bronze. Some are highly decorated, some smooth and basic. Most had finger grooves or were shaped a little like an old fashioned telephone to ensure a firm grip. The weight of halteres recovered by archaeologists vary wildy with some apparently as heavy as 10lbs, so either some athletes were enormous of halteres were also used as dumbbells.

One thing missing from the modern long jump is musical accompaniment provided by a flautist, presumably to help the athletes settle into a rhythm.

So how far was the average jump? As usual, the annals are mainly silent, but two boasting athletes may hold the answer. Chionis of Sparta managed a 52 foot jump. Phayllus claims to have jumped a whopping 55 feet. To put that into perspective, Greg Rutherford won a gold medal at the 2012 London Games with a 8.31 metre jump, just over 27 feet, using the modern run-up method.

Was the ancient long jump more like the modern triple jump? Modern records do surpass Chionis and Phayllus, but again it uses a run-up. Also, halteres have been shown to be actually detrimental when using a running start.

I’m inclined to believe that ancient athletes jumped from standing  3 or perhaps 5 times, either in succession or repeatedly from the edge of the skamma with their distances being totalled.

If one athlete came first in the discus, javelin and long jump, he was immediately declared the victor.

Otherwise, athletes without a win were eliminated, leaving either two or three athletes to run the stadion sprint.

If after 4 events an athlete triumphed in three of them, he was victorious. Only if two athletes were left with 2 wins each did they advance to the wrestling round.

The pentathlete was admired for being versatile as the Greeks loved an all-rounder, but they never achieved quite the celebrity of sprinters or wrestlers.

Equestrian

Forget show jumping and banish all thoughts of dressage, there were no prancing ponies in ancient Greece. Equestrian events were frequently the most lethal events of the Games. They took place in hippodromes, of which few traces survive. We do know that hippodromes were large, flat and had a turning post at each end.

Tethrippon

The four-horse chariot race consisted of 12 full laps of the hippodrome which is equivalent to 72 lengths of the stadium. There was fencing around the course to protect the spectators from loose horses or flying bodies. At most Games there were simple starting lines which gave chariots on the outer side a disadvantage, being farther from the turning post. At Olympia there were elaborate starting gates called the aphesis that allowed for staggered starts, ensuring that each chariot reached the turning post at roughly the same time. Deliberate crashing and other acts of sabotage were against the rules, but there were so many accidental crashes that the chance of every chariot finishing was incredibly slim.

There are arguments about how many chariots competed and ancient sources are rarely forthcoming. At the Pythian Games at Delphi in 462 BCthe tethrippon had 41 chariots compete and yet only one, owned by King Arcesilas of Cyrene, managed to finish the entire course.

The chariots were lightweight for speed and quite slim, constructed from wood with wicker panels and tied together with leather thongs. They were similar to ancient war-chariots, though the Greeks had long ceased to use them, considering them old-fashioned and by then, somewhat barbaric on a battlefield. Chariots were often brightly decorated with vivid paint and metal inlays, horses wore decorated reins. Charioteers wore an ankle length chiton.

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The inner pair of horses called zugoi were harnessed to the chariot yoke whereas the outer pair, known as seiraphoroi, were harnessed with leather straps. Each horse had a rein and the charioteer had to maintain control of all of them, using one hand to control the zugoi and one hand to control the seiraphoroi.  Some tied the ends of the reins to their belts so as not to drop them, however there was a risk that if a charioteer fell from the chariot he would be dragged along the ground.

Charioteers were sometimes slaves bought by wealthy chariot owners for the purpose. Whereas some were bought and trained by their owners, no doubt trained slave charioteers could fetch a high price. Other charioteers were free men who could be hired out for a single Games or longer. It rarely mattered which city the charioteer was from, it was the owner who won the victory and had their names recorded in victory odes. This is firstly because buying and maintaining a chariot and four thoroughbred horses was cripplingly expensive to all but the very aristocratic, but also because chariot racing had such a high mortality rate that few nobles wanted to risk their lives in pursuit of glory when someone else was willing to do it for them for a handful of drachma. Occasionally a thrill seeking aristocrat would insist on driving their own chariots but they were a rarity. Owning a slave or hiring a driver also allowed women their shot at Olympic glory. The first woman to compete was a Spartan princess named Kyniska and she won not once, but twice in 396 and 392 BC.

Most spectators wanted to be close to the turning posts where there was a greater chance of a multi-chariot pile up. It would have been a brutal, violent, noisy race that claimed several victims and whilst it was never given the same prestige as the stadion sprint, the tethrippon was hugely popular and highly anticipated.

There were also races with two-horse chariots (synoris,) that were 8 laps long and for a short time at Olympia, chariots drawn by mules (apene,) that were 3 laps long. There was a horseback race of 2 laps known as the keles (a name also given to an energetic sexual position offered by the better class of  prostitutes plying their trade at the Games!) In Olympia the equestrian events were important enough to be the first events of the Games, at Delphi they were the grand finale.

Other

Olympia only held the athletic events above, but Nemea, Isthmia and particularly Delphi had further events in music.

There were prizes for playing a pair of auloi, which was a reeded instrument not unlike a modern oboe, and the kithara which was a type of lyre. There was also a prize for playing the kithara with a vocal accompaniment.

Over time more disciplines were added for the writing and recitation of poetry and prose, acting, dancing and even painting.

Olympia held a competition among their own trumpeters and heralds (sent across Greece to announce each Games,) as to which would be the trumpeter and herald of the Games. The trumpeter would perform fanfares to get the attention of the crowds, the herald would announce events and introduce the athlete by stating his name, his father’s name and his hometown. The trumpeter and herald were also indispensable at prize giving ceremonies.

 

The Prizes

The Panhellenic Games offered a ceremonial crown called a stephanos, becoming known as stephanitic Games. Until the prize giving ceremonies athletes wore ribbons around their heads.

  • Olympia – an olive wreath from a sacred tree in the sanctuary of Zeus
  • Delphi – a wreath of bay-laurel from Thessaly which was a sacred tree of Apollo
  • Nemea – a wreath of wild celery
  • Isthmia – originally celery, later wreaths of pine leaves

Bragging rights were more than a worth prize, along with any gifts showered upon you by a grateful city and your admirers. There were no prizes for second or third.

‘Prize’ games across the Mediterranean offered the chance for financial gain, (Sybaris in Italy once tried to hold a prize Games at the same time as the Olympics in a fit of pique,) with prizes being rather extravagant. At the Panathenaic Games in Athens the victor of the chariot race were given 140 amphorae (about 5,000 litres) of expensive olive oil pressed from Athena’s sacred olive trees.

Another prize was fame that could endure for centuries (and in some cases, millenia,) if an athlete was endowed with (or could afford,) a victory statue in his home town or the sanctuary where he won his event.

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