Olympics Sports Illustrated

1
Pictures of the Events in The Ancient Olympics

Two athletes: the one on the left holds a strigil; the one on the right an aryballos.
Pisticci Painter, Cyclops Painter Two athletes: the one on the left holds a strigil; the one on the right an aryballos. Lucanian red-figure oinochoe, c. 430–420 B.C. From Metapontum. At the Louvre. H. 24.8 cm (9 ¾ in.), Diam. 19.3 cm (7 ½ in.). PD Courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen.

The ancient Olympics was a major 5-day (by the fifth century) event that took place once every four years, not in Athens, but at the religious sanctuary of Olympia, near the Peloponnesian city of Elis. Not only were the Olympics a series of often dangerous athletic competitions (agōnēs/αγώνες --> agony, protagonist) that conferred tremendous honor and benefits on the athletes, but they were supplemental parts of a major religious festival. The Olympics honored the king of the gods, Zeus, as represented in the colossal statue of him sculpted by the Athenian Phidias/Pheidias/Φειδίας (c. 480-430 B.C.). It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

There was a lot of excitement about these games, just as there is today. Adventure, new people to meet, souvenirs to take home, maybe danger or disease (at least a hoarse throat from cheering on favorites) and a bit of the "what happens at Olympia stays in Olympia" mentality.

The games conferred honor, like today, on athletes (some of whom were deified), the athletic trainers, and their sponsors, but not on their countries, since the games were restricted to Greeks (at least until the fifth century [see Brophy and Brophy]). Instead, ​the honor went to the individual city-state. Victory odes [​see: The 1st Olympics] would include the victor's name, his father's name, his city, and his event. Greeks from all over the Mediterranean wherever Greeks had set up colonies could participate, provided they fit certain requirements: the most basic of which was revealed by the required dress code -- nudity.

[5.6.7] As you go from Scillus along the road to Olympia, before you cross the Alpheius,there is a mountain with high, precipitous cliffs. It is called Mount Typaeum. It is a law of Elis to cast down it any women who are caught present at the Olympic games, or even on the other side of the Alpheius, on the days prohibited to women. However, they say that no woman has been caught, except Callipateira only; some, however, give the lady the name of Pherenice and not Callipateira.

[5.6.8] She, being a widow, disguised herself exactly like a gymnastic trainer, and brought her son to compete at Olympia. Peisirodus, for so her son was called, was victorious, and Callipateira, as she was jumping over the enclosure in which they keep the trainers shut up, bared her person. So her sex was discovered, but they let her go unpunished out of respect for her father, her brothers and her son, all of whom had been victorious at Olympia. But a law was passed that for the future trainers should strip before entering the arena.
Pausanias (geographer; 2nd century A.D.) Translated by W. H. S. Jones

Short Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

Sources for This and the Following Pages

  • , by Donald G. Kyle; Blackwell: 2007
  • "Interactive Offerings: Early Greek Dedicatory Epigrams and Ritual," by Joseph W. Day; Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 96 (1994), pp. 37-74.
  • A Visitor's Guide to the Ancient Olympics, by Neil Faulkner; Yale University Press: 2012
  • "Deaths in the Pan-Hellenic Games II: All Combative Sports," by Robert Brophy and Mary Brophy; The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 106, No. 2 (Summer, 1985), pp. 171-198
  • The Ancient Olympic Games, by Judith Swaddling; University of Texas Press, 2000

  1. Olympics Sports Illustrated
  2. Youth Wrestling
  3. Equestrian Events
  4. Pentathlon - Discus
  5. Pentathlon - Javelin
  6. Feasting Olympic Style
  7. Boxing
  8. Pankration
  9. Hoplite Race

2
Wrestling - Youth

2 Youths Wrestling and Trainers. Drinking cup (kylix), by Onesimos, c. 490-480 B.C. Red-Figure.
Olympics Sports Illustrated | Youth Wrestling | Equestrian Events | Pentathlon - Discus | Pentathlon - Javelin | Feasting Olympic Style | Boxing | Pankration | Hoplite Race Youths wrestling. Kylix by Onesimos, c. 490-480 B.C. Red figure. [www.flickr.com/photos/pankration/] Pankration Research Institute @ Flickr.com

According to the standard Olympic chronology, boys' wrestling was introduced in 632, 19 Olympiads after the men's wrestling event was introduced. In the first instance of both, the victor was Spartan. Boys were generally between 12 and 17. Their three events, wrestling, sprint, and boxing, probably occurred on the first day of the Olympics, but after the ceremonial oath taking by the athletes, and the religious opening rituals.

Wrestling was done standing. There were no weight class distinctions for either men or youth, a fact that gave an advantage to the bulkier. Combatants stood on dry, level sand. This is different from the muddied pankration [see below] ground where combatants wrestled, but also used other techniques and where landing on the ground had nothing to do with defeat. Wrestlers were olive oiled and then dusted, so as not to be too slippery to hold. Most wore short hair to keep their opponents from grabbing it.

Wrestlers used holds and throws. Three out of five falls meant victory. Sand on the body could provide evidence of a fall. A submission also ended the event.

Pausanias (geographer; 2nd century A.D.), who says the great strongman Hercules won both the pankration and men's wrestling, describes the institution of the boys' wrestling competition:

[5.8.9] The contests for boys have no authority in old tradition, but were established by the Eleans themselves because they approved of them. The prizes for running and wrestling open to boys were instituted at the thirty-seventh Festival; Hipposthenes of Lacedaemon won the prize for wrestling, and that for running was won by Polyneices of Elis. At the forty-first Festival they introduced boxing for boys, and the winner out of those who entered for it was Philytas of Sybaris.
Pausanias, Translated by W. H. S. Jones

In Greek myth connected with the Olympics, Hercules and Theseus (the one who had a hand in everything; also known as the Ionian counterpart of Hercules) compete in wrestling. The results are indecisive. In his epitome (abridged version) of other writers, the ​Byzantine patriarch Photius (fl. 9th century) summarizes the writing of a curious Alexandrian scholar called Ptolemy Hephaestion, in the following passage about the heroes' match:

Menedemus the Elean, son of Bounias, showed to Heracles how to clean the stables of Augias by diverting a river; it is said also that he fought alongside Heracles in his fight with Augias; he was killed and buried in Lepreon close to a pine. Heracles instituted games in his honour and he fought against Theseus; as the combat was equal, the spectators declared that Theseus was a second Heracles.
Photius Bibliotheca

Short Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

  1. Olympics Sports Illustrated (includes references for all pages)
  2. Youth Wrestling
  3. Equestrian Events
  4. Pentathlon - Discus
  5. Pentathlon - Javelin
  6. Feasting Olympic Style
  7. Boxing
  8. Pankration
  9. Hoplite Race

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Chariot Race

Chariot race. Shoulder of an Attic black-figure hydria. c 510 B.C. Terracotta
Chariot race. Shoulder of an Attic black-figure hydria. circa 510 B.C. Terracotta Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Greek and Roman Art Accession number L.1999.10.12 CC Lent of Shelby White and Leon Levy; Photographer Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011). CC Lent of Shelby White and Leon Levy; Photographer Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011)

On the second day of the Olympics, spectators watched equestrian events. Introduced in 680 B.C., the 4-horse chariot race or tethrippon was popular with the crowds and especially prestigious because it was expensive to run a chariot team or two. There could be as many as 20 competitors on an 800-footwide track, with an elaborate starting gate by the mid-fifth century, in the hippodrome.

A chariot had two pairs of horses all handled by reins wrapped around the two wrists of the charioteer. The inner horses, known as zugioi (Latin: iugales) were attached directly to a yoke. The outer ones ("trace horses") were the seiraphoroi. Unlike the other athletes, the charioteer would not be naked; he would be garbed in a tunic or chiton [see: Greek Clothing] for wind efficiency.

Difficult to maneuver turning points, at either end of the hippodrome, and no central spine dividing the course [see circus maximus], led to fatal accidents. Since the course was 12 laps long (6 stades+), charioteers faced danger on their own each time around, and from other, potentially less alert charioteers who might be nearby. Especially pleasing to the crowds were the frequent, catastrophic pile-ups.

Women could win this event, even though they weren't present, because the owner of the chariot team, not the charioteer, received the acclaim.

Short Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

There were also bareback horse races (perhaps 3 lengths) without saddles and stirrups, but with goads and spurs, and, from 408 B.C., a 2-horse chariot race that only went 8 laps. For a time, from the start of the fifth century and ending in 444 there were less prestigious mule-cart races.

For more information on the prestige of chariot race entries, see:

  • "Political Activity in Classical Athens," by P. J. Rhodes; The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 106 (1986), pp. 132-144.

  1. Olympics Sports Illustrated (includes references for all pages)
  2. Youth Wrestling
  3. Equestrian Events
  4. Pentathlon - Discus
  5. Pentathlon - Javelin
  6. Feasting Olympic Style
  7. Boxing
  8. Pankration
  9. Hoplite Race

4
Discus

So-called “Lancelotti Discobolus”. Marble, Roman, c. A.D. 140
Olympics Sports Illustrated | Youth Wrestling | Equestrian Events | Pentathlon - Discus | Pentathlon - Javelin | Feasting Olympic Style | Boxing | Pankration | Hoplite Race. Lancelotti Discobolus. Marble, c. A.D. 140. National Museum of Rome. PD Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen

On the second day, there were equestrian events in the morning followed by an afternoon devoted to the five events of the pentathlon:

  1. Discus,
  2. Long jump,
  3. Javelin,
  4. Sprint, and
  5. Wrestling.

As a pentathlon contender, competitors engaged in all but had to excel in three of them. There were also separate wrestling events outside of the pentathlon.

The pentathlon's discuses were bronze, weighing about 2.5 kg and kept safe in the Sikyonian treasury. Each athlete threw three of these, once time each.

He might kill someone in the stands if his aim were off.

For information on Pentathlon scoring, see:

  • "The Greek Pentathlon Again"
    Victor Matthews
    Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 100, (1994), pp. 129-138

Short Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

  1. Olympics Sports Illustrated (includes references for all pages)
  2. Youth Wrestling
  3. Equestrian Events
  4. Pentathlon - Discus
  5. Pentathlon - Javelin
  6. Feasting Olympic Style
  7. Boxing
  8. Pankration
  9. Hoplite Race

5
Javelin

Javelin thrower. Attic red-figured oinochoe, c. 450 B.C.
Olympics Sports Illustrated | Youth Wrestling | Equestrian Events | Pentathlon - Discus | Pentathlon - Javelin | Feasting Olympic Style | Boxing | Pankration | Hoplite Race. Javelin thrower. Attic red-figured oinochoe, c. 450 B.C. Louvre. PD Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen

Part of the pentathlon, the javelin (akon) was thrown by means of a type of sling. Javelins were not military-issue but a length of elder wood with a small bronze head (to put a mark in the dirt) tossed by means of a leather band twisted around its middle and released after a running start. The victor was the one whose javelin went the farthest. If someone who had won the previous two events, the discus and the long jump, won the javelin, he won the pentathlon. There was then no need for the remaining two events.

  1. Discus,
  2. Long jump,
  3. Javelin,
  4. Sprint, and
  5. Wrestling.

For information on Pentathlon scoring, see:

  • "The Greek Pentathlon Again"
    Victor Matthews
    Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 100, (1994), pp. 129-138

Short Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

  1. Olympics Sports Illustrated (includes references for all pages)
  2. Youth Wrestling
  3. Equestrian Events
  4. Pentathlon - Discus
  5. Pentathlon - Javelin
  6. Feasting Olympic Style
  7. Boxing
  8. Pankration
  9. Hoplite Race

6
Feast

Image ID: 1625158 The Zeus of Pheidias, loftiest embodiment of divinity in art. (1924?)
Olympics Sports Illustrated | Youth Wrestling | Equestrian Events | Pentathlon - Discus | Pentathlon - Javelin | Feasting Olympic Style | Boxing | Pankration | Hoplite Race. Image ID 1625158 The Zeus of Pheidias, loftiest embodiment of divinity in art. NYPL Digital Gallery

This is not an Olympic Athletic event, although it's on a scale that may make it seem worthy. It is the main event of the middle day of the games, however: sacrifice, first; later, footraces; finally, feasting.

There were many feasts after the final ceremony at the end of the games, the crowning of the Olympic victors in wreathed branches of wild olive, but the main feast happened on the third day of the Olympics, the day following the full moon -- the second after the summer solstice. Athletes, representatives of the poleis, judges, and butchers all paraded to the altar of Zeus (in his sanctuary, which is known as the altis) where a hecatomb was to be sacrificed to Zeus. A hecatomb is 100 oxen/bulls, each of which was garlanded and led forward individually to have its throat slit. Then fat and thigh bone were burned as an offering to Zeus.

According to Greek myth, it was Prometheus who offered Zeus his pick of the sacrificial packet. Prometheus said Zeus would get whichever one he wanted and humans would get the other. Zeus, not knowing the content of his bundle, but thinking it looked the richer, picked the one without meat. All he would get from sacrifices was the smoke. Prometheus had deliberately tricked Zeus so he could feed his poor, hungry friends, the mortals.

Anyway, at the Olympics, the enormous number of beasts sacrificed meant there was plenty of food for the people involved in the Olympics. There was even, generally, enough food so that the people attending the game as spectators could at least taste the bounty.

Short Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

  1. Olympics Sports Illustrated (includes references for all pages)
  2. Youth Wrestling
  3. Equestrian Events
  4. Pentathlon - Discus
  5. Pentathlon - Javelin
  6. Feasting Olympic Style
  7. Boxing
  8. Pankration
  9. Hoplite Race

7
Boxing

Boxers. Drinking cup (kylix), by Onesimos,c. 490-480 B.C. Red-Figure. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Olympics Sports Illustrated | Youth Wrestling | Equestrian Events | Pentathlon - Discus | Pentathlon - Javelin | Feasting Olympic Style | Boxing | Pankration | Hoplite Race Boxers. Kylix by Onesimos. c. 490-480 B.C. Red-Figure. [www.flickr.com/photos/pankration/] Pankration Research Institute @ Flickr.com

Introduced in 688 B.C., when a contestant from Smyrna won, boxing (pugmachia) was one of the three main, very popular spectator sports of the fourth day, along with wrestling and the pankration. Like the other two, it was excessively brutal, with limited rules. Winning boxers were scarred, with broken noses, lost teeth, and cauliflower ears.

Surrounded by a barrier called a klimax, boxers wore leather wrapped around their hands, with fingers kept free. The leather wraps are called himantes. They enhanced the blows  but were meant to protect the wearer's hands.

The contest continued until one man was knocked out or surrendered by raising an index finger. The limited rules were (1) that opponents couldn't be held in order for the other to beat him incessantly more easily and (2) no gouging. The main activities were dancing around to wear out an opponent, punching the other in the head (since blows were to be directed to only the head and neck area), and parrying the blows.

The pugmachia was a deadly event.

For more on Olympic deaths, see:

  • "Deaths in the Pan-Hellenic Games II: All Combative Sports," Robert Brophy and Mary Brophy; The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 106, No. 2 (Summer, 1985), pp. 171-198

Short Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

  1. Olympics Sports Illustrated (includes references for all pages)
  2. Youth Wrestling
  3. Equestrian Events
  4. Pentathlon - Discus
  5. Pentathlon - Javelin
  6. Feasting Olympic Style
  7. Boxing
  8. Pankration
  9. Hoplite Race

8
Pankration

2 athletes in the pankration. Panathenaic amphora Athens 332-331 B.C., under Niketes. From Capua.
Olympics Sports Illustrated | Youth Wrestling | Equestrian Events | Pentathlon - Discus | Pentathlon - Javelin | Feasting Olympic Style | Boxing | Pankration | Hoplite Race. Pankration. Panathenaic amphora, made in Athens in 332-331 B.C.© Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

Pankration, introduced in 648 and first won by a Syracusan, was one of the events held on the fourth day. The name describes the event: pan=all + kration, from κρατέω=to be strong, victorious. It is described as "no holds barred," which is technically true, but while holding anywhere (yes, even the genitals) and all grips were allowed, there were two acts that were forbidden, eye gouging and biting. The pair of combatants, pre-oiled and dusted, soon wound up squirming on wax-coated mud, kicking, throwing each other, choking, breaking bones, trying as much to overcome as to endure and escape. The pankration (or pankratium) could look like a boxing or wrestling match with kicking.

To describe the deadly event as brutal is ​an understatement. Death didn't necessarily mean defeat. It was very popular.

Short Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

  1. Olympics Sports Illustrated (includes references for all pages)
  2. Youth Wrestling
  3. Equestrian Events
  4. Pentathlon - Discus
  5. Pentathlon - Javelin
  6. Feasting Olympic Style
  7. Boxing
  8. Pankration
  9. Hoplite Race

9
Hoplitodromos

Hoplitodromos
Olympics Sports Illustrated | Youth Wrestling | Equestrian Events | Pentathlon - Discus | Pentathlon - Javelin | Feasting Olympic Style | Boxing | Pankration | Hoplite Race. Hoplitodromos Attic Amphora 480-470 B.C. Louvre Campana Collection. H. 33.5 cm. CC Marie-Lan Nguyen

This fourth-day sporting event sounds funny and evidently did so even way back when. The name refers to the idea that the participants raced as hoplites, the heavily armed infantry soldier of the armies of the Greeks. The contestants wore some of the soldier's heavy bronze infantry armor, but like the other competitors, they were basically naked. The picture shows greaves and a helmet, as well as a shield. Special standardized-weight, 1 meter wide shields were stored for the event. Since the victor was required to have his shield, if the unwieldy object fell, the runners had to pick them back up and lose time.

The first year of the event was 520 B.C.

[5.8.10] The race for men in armour was approved at the sixty-fifth Festival, to provide, I suppose, military training; the first winner of the race with shields was Damaretus of Heraea.
Pausanias (geographer; 2nd century A.D.) Translated by W. H. S. Jones

The fifth day was reserved for the closing ceremonies and awards.

The order of events was not fixed once and for all. Especially as events were added and removed, there was variation. Here is what Pausanias has to say about the order of events in his day, the second century A.D.:

[5.9.3] The order of the games in our own day, which places the sacrifices to the god for the pentathlum and chariot-races second, and those for the other competitions first, was fixed at the seventy-seventh Festival. Previously the contests for men and for horses were held on the same day. But at the Festival I mentioned the pancratiasts prolonged their contests till night-fall, because they were not summoned to the arena soon enough. The cause of the delay was partly the chariot-race, but still more the pentathlum. Callias of Athens was champion of the pancratiasts on this occasion, but never afterwards was the pancratium to be interfered with by the pentathlum or the chariots.

Short Quiz on the Ancient Olympics

  1. Olympics Sports Illustrated (includes references for all pages)
  2. Youth Wrestling
  3. Equestrian Events
  4. Pentathlon - Discus
  5. Pentathlon - Javelin
  6. Feasting Olympic Style
  7. Boxing
  8. Pankration
  9. Hoplite Race