The Ancient Greek Olympics

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Part 2: The Games They Played

The Olympics of ancient Greece weren't exactly the worldwide spectacle that we have today. For one thing, only Greeks took part. For another, only nine events were featured.

  • Boxing: Those who boxed wore a sort of glove made of straps of soft ox-hide. They didn't fight people of similar weight; opponents were chosen at random. Boxing matches had no time limit and ended only when one boxer held up his hand or fell to the ground.
  • Discus: The throwers of the discus originally threw a circular stone and then later a circular shape made of iron, lead, or bronze. The movements and techniques of ancient discus throwers were very similar to those of today's athletes.
  • Equestrian Events: Horse racing took place in a hippodrome, a large stadium that contained a racetrack very much like today's track and field ovals. The athletes would ride in war chariots that were fitted to either two or four horses. (Even with four horses, only one man rode in the chariot.) The races numbered three, eight, or 12 times around, depending on the age of the horse.
  • Javelin: The javelin of ancient Greece was made of wood and was about as tall as an average man. The javelin throwers of this time also attached a piece of leather called a thong, a leather strap that formed a loop. The thong made the javelin easier to grip in the first place and made it fly longer after it was released. The Games featured two kinds of javelin events: throwing for distance and throwing at a target (for which an athlete would throw from horseback at a specific distance).
  • Jumping: This was long jump only, and the main difference in ancient times was that the jumper carried a weight in each hand. He would swing these weights as he ran down the ramp, jump, then release the weights just before he landed. All of this was designed to increase the distance of the jump.
  • Pankration: This was a sport that has been lost. It was a combination of boxing and wrestling that was very, very rough. The only things outlawed were biting and gouging out an opponent's eyes. Athletes didn't wear boxing gloves, but they could hold an opponent with one hand and hit him with another, unlike in boxing. Two versions of the pankration were offered. In the first, whoever hit the ground first lost; in the second, whoever lost consciousness first lost. Soldiers were usually very good at this sport, and it was not unusual for pankration athletes to be seriously injured or even die.
  • Pentathlon: This event combined five other events: discus, javelin, long jump, running, and wrestling. The first three were used only in the pentathlon. Historians don't know much about the winner of the pentathlon was determined.
  • Running: The running races were usually very popular. The three distances were 200 meters, 400 meters, and a long-distance race, which ranged from 1400 to 1800 meters. Various running races took place, including one in which athletes wore armor. In every case, the winner was the one who crossed the finish line first.
  • Wrestling: This, too, was similar to wrestling today. The object was to get an opponent to fall to the ground. The first man to fall three times lost. Hitting, as in boxing, was not allowed, nor was biting or gouging out one's eyes. Tripping was allowed, however. Also, no weight classes were involved, meaning that the smallest man could take on the largest man if the luck of the draw made it so.

All of the athletes were men, of course, as was always the case in ancient Greece. Women couldn't own property or vote or fight in wars, and they certainly couldn't compete in the Olympic Games. And unlike today's athletes, who wear their countries' colors on their uniforms, the ancient Greeks usually competed without wearing any clothes at all, just another way in which pride in one's city-state or army was left out of what was supposed to be a religious festival.

First page > No Fighting Allowed > Page 1, 2 

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David White