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.

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.

Ancient Greek Olympic Running Events

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

Javelin thrower
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

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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

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.

20120222-Anfora chariot.JPG
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]

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

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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