Ancient Olympic Events

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The core 18 Olympics events were running races, field events, wrestling and boxing and horse and chariot races. There were separate events for men and boys. There was no swimming, no marathon, no beach volleyball or for that matter no ball games or team sports of any kind.

Stephen Instone wrote for the BBC: “For the first 13 Olympics there was only one event, the stadion race , which was a running race up one length of the stadium. How long this race was is a matter for conjecture, as the ancient stadium, 192 meters long, visible at Olympia now, did not exist then. In 724 B.C. a longer, there-and-back race, the diaulos, was introduced, followed four years later by the long-distance race, the dolichos, a race of perhaps 12 laps. The emphasis on running in the early years of the Olympics may reflect the perceived basic requirements for a fit soldier. [Source: Stephen Instone, BBC, February 17, 2011|::|]

“Boxing, wrestling, and the pancration (the 'all-power' race, combining all types of physical attack) soon followed, along with the pentathlon, and horse-and-chariot racing. A race while wearing armour was introduced in 520 B.C. and even a mule race (in 500 B.C. but it was not generally popular). So the changing shape of the modern Olympic programme is not without precedent, though the ancient Greeks would perhaps have baulked at the sight of some of our modern 'sports'.” |::|

Many of the events in the Greek sporting competitions were tests of skills in battle. "Since the ravines that split the Greek countryside demanded long jumps for the chase," says Boorstin, "the long jump became a regular event. But there was no high jump. The Greek athletic long jumper had to hold weights, from four to eight pounds, testing his ability to carry a weapon....The discus throw may have begun as a test of ability to throw stones in battle...In the javelin throw, as on the battlefield, to add distance and accuracy a thong was looped around a finger to give the javelin a spinning motion." The pentathlon, a test of the all-around athlete-warrior, included the broad jump, javelin, foot races, discus throw and wrestling. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

The Greeks kept no records in the modern sense. Running races were not timed (the Greeks lacked stopwatches) and measurements were not made in meters. Records were kept however for the greatest number of victories in a particular event. It was unusual an athlete to win an event more than once and even rarer for an athlete to win two different events.

The Roman Emperor Nero, supported by 5,000 soldiers, bullied competitive poetry reading onto the list of events in A.D. 67. When the Olympics were banned as a pagan ritual in A.D. 393 it consisted of 18 events. When the Olympics were restarted in 1896 it there were 43 events in nine sports. Now there are hundreds of events in about three dozen sports.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Pausanias on Ancient Olympic Events

Javelin thrower
Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece” (c. A.D. 175): “From the time the Olympian games were revived continuously, prizes were first instituted for running, and Coroebus of Elis was the victor....And in the 14th Olympiad afterwards the double course was introduced, when Hypenus, a native of Pisa, won the wild olive crown, and Acanthus the second. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“And in the 18th Olympiad they introduced the pentathlon and wrestling....And in the 23rd Olympiad they ordained prizes for boxing...And in the 25th Olympiad they had a race of full-grown horses....And in the 28th Olympiad they introduced the pancratium and the riding race. The horse of Crannonian Crauxidas got in first, and the competitors for the pancratium were beaten by the Syracusan Lygdamus, who has his sepulcher at the stone quarries of Syracuse....And the contest of the boys was not a revival of ancient usage, but the people of Elis instituted it because the idea pleased them. So prizes were instituted for running and wrestling among boys in the 37th Olympiad. And in the 41st Olympiad afterwards they invited boxing boys....And the race in heavy armor was tried in the 65th Olympiad as an exercise for war, I think.

“The order of the games in our day is to sacrifice victims to the god and then to contend in the pentathlon and horse-race, according to the program established in the 77th Olympiad, for before this horses and men contended on the same day. And at that period the pancrataists did not appear till night, for they could not compete sooner, so much time being taken up by the horse-races and pentathlon.”

Ancient Greek Olympic Running Events

20120222-Three_runners.jpg At the first Olympic held in Greece in 776 B.C. there was only one event: a 200 meter running sprint won by a cook. For the first 13 Olympics this foot races was the only Olympic event. At that time athletes gathered every four years ran naked in straight line sprint for one race that was over in about 30 seconds and the Olympic competition was over. They didn’t race again until the next Olympics four years later. Even after other events were added the 200 meter sprint remained the prestige event.

Competitors in the running events competed on a track with flat straight aways and banked curves. About 20 runners competed in a single race. The runners took “their positions, foot to foot, at the “balbis”” — a marble starting line that is still in place in Olympia’s stadium today. A trumpet call signaled the runners to take their place. They stood upright rather than crouched and were kept in line by a rope stretched across the track. After a nod from the chief judge, the herald started the race by calling out — “apate” — (go!”)

The distances for the running races were measured in stadia, the length of one stadium. In later Olympics there were 2 stadia, 12 stadia and 24 stadia running events. The” hoplitodromia” was race in which men fully decked out in armor and shields sprinted 400 meters.

The "pentathlon” consisted of a 200 meter dash, broad jump, discus throw, javelin toss and a wrestling match. Discus were often outfit with a symbol of a owl, the symbol of Athena. This event was held in the modern Olympics until 1920 and later replaced with the "modern pentathlon" consisting or running, swimming, fencing, horseback riding and shooting events.

Ancient Greek Olympic Field Events

The discus throw in the ancient Olympics was not all that different the discus throw in the modern Olympics. As judged by images on vases, the technique was similar. The earliest surviving discuses from the 6th century B.C. were stone. Later ones were iron and bronze. The bronze models used on the A.D. 3rd century were similar to those used today. Discuses were not a standard size; they generally weighed between two and four kilograms. Scholars debate whether throwers used a full body rotation when they threw or gave a slight swing and relied more on arm strength.

The javelin throw probably originated as a display of hunting or battle skills. As is true today throwers competed for distance. One key difference though: ancient javelins were equipped with a leather strap that throwers hooked their fingers onto, helping them throw farther and more accurately by giving the javelin a spin. While on the javelin was in the air the strap unreeled and fell off. The javelins themselves were made of wood and none survive. Images of them on vases indicate they were lighter and slightly shorter than modern javelins.

Ancient Greek Long Jumping Events

20120222-House_of_Menander_-_Caldarium Pompeii.jpg
long jumper in Pompeii mosaic
In the standing long jump event athletes held lead or stone weights called “haltere” in their hands. Vase paintings from the 18th Olympics in 708 B.C. show athletes swinging the weights forward as they took off and swung them back behind the body as they landed. In some circles, scholars have debated whether the weights were a help or a hindrance. The event was choreographed to music.

A study by Alberto Minetto, a biomechanist at Manchester Metropolitan University in Britain, holds that the weights helped the jumpers jump further. Jumping a distance depends on three things: angle, velocity and center of mass of the jumper. The weights do not affect angle or velocity but do affect the center of mass, extending it forward at the beginning of the jump, giving the jumper a boost, and extending it backwards at the end of the jump, allowing the jumper to stretch beyond where he might otherwise land as long as the weights did not significantly affect the angle or velocity of a jump

Computer models indicated the weight could increase jumps by up to two percent. Field tests using people untrained in long jumping, and using weights between two and about 20 pounds, found that the jumpers could increase their jumps by five percent, or roughly the equivalent of Bob Beamon’s world record jump in 1968 over the previous record.

In the classical literature there were reports of Spartans jumping 50 feet. Some scholars have interpreted this as meaning that the long jump event probably consisted of several jumps. Others argue that the jumpers probably jumped a single jump and the account was exaggerated and inaccurate.

Olympic Fighting Events in Ancient Greece

The marquee event was the pankration. This competition combined elements of wrestling, kick boxing and murder. Strangling, kicking, slapping, bending back the fingers, tearing out an opponent’s internal organs and delivering blows to any part of the body, including the genitals, were allowed, but biting and eye gouging were prohibited. It was not unusual for losers to have shoulders and feet twisted out of socket.

The referees carried whips. In most cases a competitor was declared the winner when his opponent either fell unconscious or held his hand up in defeat. One famous wrestler nicknamed Mr Digits specialized in breaking his opponents fingers. Killing was not allowed. If a man killed another man, the dead man was declared the winner. When a combatant was strangled to death the judges sometimes awarded him an olive crown for showing courage.

In one fabled match Damixones of Syracuse and Kreugas of Epidmanos fought for perhaps several hours with no decided winner. They then agreed to accept an undefended blow from their rival to decide the match. Kreugas went first and smashed Damixones in the head. Damixones survived. He delivered his blow to the abdomen, piercing the skin and ripping out Kreugas’s intestines and killing him. Kreugas was declared the winner. Damixones was disqualified on the ground that in the process of dismembering his opponent he delivered several blows (one from each finger) rather than the agreed upon single blow.

Ancient Greek Olympic Wrestling and Boxing Events

In the wrestling events there were no weight divisions or time limits. The wrestlers didn’t score points with take downs or reversals or win a matchs with a pin. The loser was the first one to touch any part his body, other than his feet, to ground three times. Wrestling was something that all free-born Greek men engaged in and was a common gymnasium activity.

Modern Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling is not really like the wrestling practiced by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The main difference between Greco-Roman wrestling and Olympic freestyle wrestling is that in the former a wrestler can not seize his opponent below the hips or grabs his legs. This means that throws have to be one by lifting an opponent above the waist, something that requires a lot of strength to do.

Greek boxers battled each other beginning in the 23rd ancient Olympics in 688 B.C. There were no weight divisions and no time limits. Contestants were selected for bouts by the luck of the draw. In the fights, the boxers’ hands were wrapped in leather thongs and they fought with no breaks or rounds until one fighter gave up or was knocked senseless. Blows to the body were not allowed; only blows to the head. By the end of their careers boxers had huge cauliflower ears, were missing a great number of teeth and were the butt of endless jokes in Greek comedies.

Horse Sports in Ancient Greece

Chariot racing was among the biggest draws at the ancient Olympics. During the races spectators were sometimes killed after they ran onto the track. There were other horse sports. One of the marque events at Greek festivals was the “apobates” , in which contestant in full armor leapt on and off moving chariots. There were also horseback riding events in which riders rode bareback and naked and mule cart races.

Chariot and horse races were held in long, narrow Hippodromes that seated up to 45,000 spectators. The track was not like a modern horse racing track. It was more like an oval football field with a row of columns down the middle, which created a lot of maneuvering room.

Awards were often given to the owners not the riders. When the riders were recognized both the horse and the rider were given wreaths. Equestrian sports were among the few events that women and girls were allowed to compete in.

Chariot Races in Ancient Greece

20120222-Apobates_race.jpg The Olympics games often kicked off with a race involving 40 chariots flying through a course at one time with spectacular spills and frequent deaths. Often only a handful of the chariots that started made it to the finish line.

The chariots started in a staggered fashion so that those on the outside were not at a disadvantage. Competitions were held for two, three and four horse chariots, usually driven by hired professional, essentially slaves, owned by the sponsors. They lived in stables and were breed like horses from the offspring of famous charioteers. Despite their lowly background successful charioteers were celebrated heros and the best ones earned enough money to buy their freedom. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Competitors were often killed. Describing an accident Sophocles wrote: “As the crowd saw the driver somersault, there rose a wail of pity for the youth as he was bounced onto the ground , then flung head over heels into the sky. When his companions caught the runaway team and freed the bloodstained corpse from his reigns he was disfigured and marred past the recognition of his best friend.”

"A two-wheeled chariot," wrote journalist Lionel Cassonin Smithsonian magazine, "was light, like a modern trotters' gig, but pulled by a team of four horses that would be driven at the fastest gallop they could generate. They made 12 laps around the course — about nine kilometers — with 180 degree turns at each end. As at our Indianapolis 500 viewers enjoyed not only the excitement of the race but the titillation that comes from the constant presence of danger: as the teams thundered around the turns, or one chariot tried to cut over from the outside to the inside, crashes and collisions were common and doubtless often fatal. In one celebrated race in the Pythian games, the competition was so lethal that only one competitor managed to finish!" [Lionel Casson, Smithsonian, February 1990]

Sports Excluded from Ancient Olympics

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “At the core of Greek athletics was an individual's physical endeavor to overtake an opponent. For this reason, sports in ancient Greece generally excluded team competitions and performances aimed at setting records. Contests included footraces, the long jump, diskos and javelin throwing, wrestling, the pentathlon (a combination of these five events), boxing, the pankration (a combination of wrestling and boxing), horse races, and chariot races. [Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002, \^/]

20120222-Anfora chariot.JPG John Fox wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Ball games and team sports “have become so integral to our very notion of sport that it would be unthinkable to host the” Olympics Games without them. “But the elevation of ball play to Olympic status is an entirely modern phenomenon. It would have been equally unthinkable in Classical times for an object as fun and frivolous as the ball to have been allowed entry to the hallowed sanctuary of Olympia. [Source: John Fox, Los Angeles Times, June 9, 2012. Fox is the author of “The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game”.]

"It's not that the Greeks didn't love to play ball. When Odysseus was shipwrecked on the shore of Phaeacia, he encountered the beautiful princess Nausicaa playing an ancient version of dodgeball with her maids. While oxen were being sacrificed and athletes rubbed down with olive oil to compete for Zeus' honor at Olympia, ordinary Greeks were playing a silly game called ephedrismos, in which players mounted on the shoulders of teammates threw a ball at a target or to another pair of players. Scenes of women and men playing variations of this strange game of people polo appear repeatedly on painted jars and statues of the Classical period, and in much earlier scenes from ancient Egypt — suggesting it was more than just a passing fad.

"More reminiscent of today's competitive team sports was episkyros, a rugby-like game played by two teams of a dozen or so players with a feather-stuffed leather ball. The 4th century playwright Antiphanes vividly described a game in progress, handing down possibly history's first play-by-play sports commentary: "He caught the ball and laughed as he passed it to one player at the same time as he dodged another ... and all the while there were screams and shouts: Out of bounds! Too far! Past him! Over his head!"

"But these entertaining games were in a class apart from the Olympics, which were regarded not as "games" — a term not associated with the events until modern times — but as agon (root of agony), serious "struggles" of body and will. Young men of worth engaged in these sacred contests as proxy and preparation for battle; the muscle-bound Olympian represented the ideal of the man prepared to defend the city-state. To win was glorious: Along with an olive wreath and lifelong admiration, victors received a lifetime annuity and exemption from taxation (so much for amateurism)."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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