Athletics in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece is remembered for many things, among them philosophy, science, architecture, and drama. Rich in culture and diversity, the Greek city-states were the perfect place for new innovations and achievements. In addition to the intellectual climate, the Greeks were famous for their athletics as well. In Ancient Greece, the athlete received just as much honor as the intellectual, and thus the mental and the physical flourished together. Of the athletic achievements in Greece, the most notable are the Olympics. The Games saw the coming together of the city-states in a collective embrace of the athlete and his feats. And outside of the Olympics, the Greeks continued their love for sport.


Unknown.jpegThe first Olympics, it is said, were held in 776 BCE, its purpose not athletic but religious. When the Olympics were first conceived, the Greeks intended for it to be a religious ceremony, a way for them to honor Zeus. Introducing athletics into the Olympics was a way of pleasing the Gods, as the performance, they hoped, would entertain the gods. However, the ceremony was not wholly religious in that the Greeks did it also to celebrate their humanism, specifically that of which the body was capable. Athletic achievement was one of the highest honors; it showed to what discipline and dedication could lead, and it inspired others by example. Originally, the competitions extended only to foot races and wrestling. Only later were horse and chariot racing, boxing, and javelin added. The popularity of the Games grew thereafter, and in 582 BCE Delphi initiated the Pythian Games; a year later, Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games; and in 573 BCE, Nemea had their own Olympic Games. Popular legend says the marathon is derived from the historical battle of the same name. The historian Herodotus recorded that the Greeks “sent off to Sparta a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner…. The Athenians… established in his honour yearly sacrifices and a torch-race.”[1] Pheidippides gave word to Sparta that Athens had defeated a massive Persian army, running 26 miles, it is said, in a day, which led to the creation of the modern-day marathon. In 394, the Olympic Games were outlawed by Theodosius.


Unknown-1.jpegThe standard performance was the Pentathlon, a five-event competition consisting of the broad jump, discus, javelin, wrestling, and 200-yard dash. Jumpers would begin at a stand still, dumbbells in hand, and leap; discus throwers used 12lb-weights; wrestlers were graded by referees based on takedowns and form; and the dash was called the stadion (σταδιον), since it was the length of a stadium. Running in Ancient Greece was comparably tantamount to today, with up to three events: the diaulos (διαυλος), a single lap around a stadium; the dolichos (δολιχος), 12 laps around a stadium; and the images.jpegarmor race, which was adapted from military training, and was a race in which the competitors sprinted with a full suit of armor on. Evidence of marble sprinting blocks can be found in stadiums, dilapidated, worn-down, from repeated usage. Boxing was a popular sport, more so than today, and attracted large audiences. Hide gloves that extended to the elbows were worn by boxers, and hits were restricted to the head alone. There were no rounds; the winner was determined by whoever surrendered first. Unlike modern boxing, the Greeks did not compete based on weight classes, so the competition devolved from a sport of skill to a sport of pure brawn and muscle. A hippodrome, built specifically for horse-racing, was constructed for the Olympics, the arena wide enough for 10 four-horse chariots to race at once, everyone scrambling around the 23 turns that awaited them at every corner. To the enjoyment of the crowd, this affair would usually end with one racer making it to the Unknown-2.jpegfinish line successfully—the others, due both to the lack of space and tight corners, all wiping out. Like today, this event caught the attention of rich bidders, who would bet on horses; if their bet paid off, they—not the racer—got the horse. More popular than all the other events combined was the pankration (παγκρατιον), which translates to “all-strength.” This event was a mix of boxing and wrestling. The only rules were no stomping and no finger-breaking. Gory tales of famous pankratiasts survive, some accounts telling of one who killed his opponent by ripping out his innards. Women were not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games, so they got their own version: the Heraea, which had but one event, which was running.


Today, athletes have four years to train for the Olympics, whereas the Greeks had 10-months of training. Athletes trained in gymnasiums (γυμνασιον) or xystos (ξυστος), a type of colonnade. Wrestlers had their own training grounds called palæstra (παλαιστρα). Runners, on the other hand, trained outside. “They [athletes] also set the Artist-re-creation-of-ancient-wrestling.jpgexample of contending naked, publicly stripping and anointing themselves with oil in their gymnastic exercises. Formerly, even in the Olympic contests, the athletes who contended wore belts across their middles,” wrote Thucydides [2]. A shocking fact to some, the Greeks competed naked, covering themselves in olive oil to prevent themselves from getting dirtied from the mud, as well as to make themselves more mobile and slippery. Married women were not allowed to spectate during the games, but girls were allowed to because then they could find future husbands. Every city-state came to a truce during the Games, even if they were in the middle of the war, because everyone looked forward to the games, which occurred every four years, like today. The city-states even had separate games for younger athletes, those who were not yet matured. Olympia and Pythia had a boys division, and Nemea and Isthmia had an intermediate (ageneioi, αγενειοι) competition. So competitive were the Greeks that they had only first place prizes; there was no second or third, nor was there a team prize; the individual athlete had his time to shine in the Olympics—it was, after all, a celebration of the body and human excellence. The Greek roots athlon-, meaning prize, and agon-, meaning game, from which comes agony and antagonist, all embodied suffering. The agonistic games were not meant for fun for the athletes; rather, they were vigorous, challenging tests that put them to their limits, forcing them to endure more. Each Game, it is estimated 40-50,000 spectators came from around Greece, and each athlete was announced by their name, followed by their home city.


Upon winning an event, the victor would be crowned. The Olympia gave out olive wreaths, Pythia laurel, and Isthmia and Nemea parsley. Those who won were awarded lavishly. Plutarch said Solon had a handsome reward for those who got first: “[T]he victor in the Isthmian games was to have for reward an hundred drachmas; the conqueror in the Olympian, five hundred.”[3] During the winner’s celebration they were showered in leaves (phyllobolia, φυλλοβολια), given free food for a lifetime by their home polis (sitesis, συτησις), awarded with all kinds of gifts, promised free seats at future Unknown-3.jpegGames (prohedria, προεδρια), praised by poets, made into sculptures, and bestowed the honor of having their name engraved into the corridors which led to the arena. The Persians, when they witnessed the Olympic Games, purportedly remarked that the Greeks were “men who contend with one another, not for money, but for honour!”[4] It was strange to them, that these people would commit themselves to such arduous training, to fight their brethren for their namesake, and not out of anticipation of compensation. But according to Homer, “there is no greater glory that can befall a man than what he achieves by speed of his feet or strength of his hands.”[5] Those who lost at the Olympics, understandably, fell victim to depression and carried with them tremendous shame, a stigma which stuck with them through life.


During childhood, children would play in ball rooms (sphairisteria, σφαιριστερια), where they would play, you might guess, ball. It is thought that they played a version of wall ball, in which they would bounce a ball, either on the wall or on the ground, catch it, then throw it back. Evidence also shows that they might have had their own version of lacrosse. With sticks with nets at the end, they would play on two teams, each trying to get the ball past the other. Youths had trainers of their own, paidotribai (παιδοτριβαι) and gymnastai (γυμνασται), who respectively were the equivalent of wrestling coaches and physical educators. Some other games they played were khytrinda, a variation of monkey-in-the-middle and tag; posinda, a guessing game; and drapinda, which was like duck-duck-goose, where the objective was to catch the other children, who pretended to be “runaway slaves.”


Amidst the philosophical contemplation, political strife, and cultural growth, the Ancient Greeks found the time to enjoy their four-yearly Olympic Games that united all the city-states, reminding them of the common joy they shared for athletic competitiveness and glory. Victory odes from poets are plenteous and tell of the greatest athletes, all of whom trained hard, fought hard, and won hard. Sometimes we forget how similar we are to the Ancients, who once you think about them, are not so far of from us as we think: We share the same love of athletics and the same appreciation for the wonders the body can do when put to the test.


[1] Herodotus, The Histories, VI.105
[2] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, I.6
[3] Plutarch, Twelve Lives, p. 99
[4] Herodotus, op. cit., VIII.26
[5] Homer, The Odyssey, VIII.145

For further reading: Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History 2nd ed. by Sarah B. Pomeroy (2008)
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower (1998)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2: The Life of Greece by Will Durant (1966)
Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture Vol. 1 by Werner Jaeger (1945)
The Story of Man: Greece and Rome by Paul MacKendrick (1977)
The Western Experience 6th ed. by Mortimer Chambers (1995)
The Founders of the Western World by Michael Grant (1991)
The History of the Peloponnesian War
by Thucydides (1990)

The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox (2006)
The Histories by Herodotus (1990)
Twelve Lives by Plutarch (1950)
The Odyssey by Homer (1990)
The Illiad by Homer (1990)

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