The ancient Greeks, who organized the first official Olympic Games in 776 BC, gave the world the idea of organizing large-scale sporting events to entertain arenas full of spectators. More than that, they were the first culture in which people idolized their favorite sports superstars, to a level that even today’s most fanatical sports fans might find extreme.
“The Greeks believed that athletes had special powers,” explains David Luntassociate professor of history at Southern Utah University, expert on ancient Greek athletics, and author of The Crown Games of Ancient Greece: Archaeology, Athletes and Heroes. “They commissioned poems about them and told stories about statues of athletes who could heal people.”
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Lunt cites the example of Theagenes of Thasos, boxing champion, runner and competitor in Pankration, the ancient equivalent of mixed martial arts, who was so idolized for his athletic prowess that archaeologists in the 1930s found an altar at which he was worshipped, centuries after his death. As Lunt says: “They were pretty crazy about these athletes. »
The ancient Greeks may have loved sports because men participated in them as children. As Lunt notes, each Greek town had its own gymnasium, where local men stripped naked and competed naked in various sports, such as wrestling and running races.
“The Greeks appreciated physical and athletic prowess, and the toned male body was sought after as aesthetically pleasing,” it explains. Zina Giannopoulouassociate professor of classics at the University of California, Irvine who compared the ancient and modern Olympic Games. “Physical strength and prowess were also signs of moral strength, denoting self-discipline, hard work, and determination to win.” Athletes were seen as the epitome of fish bonea Greek word meaning virtue or excellence.
The Greeks also simply loved watching competitions. In addition to the Olympics, every four years they held games during other religious festivals: the Pythian Games for Apollo at Delphi, the Isthmian Games for Poseidon, and the Nemean Games, which honored Zeus. The Crown Games, as these competitions were collectively known, featured a range of events, from chariot races to athletics events and combat sports.
The athletes who competed in these events were most likely wealthy Greeks who could afford to train instead of having to work for a living. “If you wanted to compete in the Olympics, you had to show up at least a month in advance to train under the supervision of officials, who would likely eliminate anyone who wasn’t up to the competition,” says Lunt .
The Greeks had no team sports, only individual competitions, and they did not allow women to compete in events – or even, in the case of married women, to attend the games. There was one legendary exception…Kallipateira of Rhodes, who disguised herself as a coach so she could watch her son’s boxing match. “When she was arrested, she defended herself by saying that it was she, of all women, who should be allowed to attend, because she had a father, three brothers, a son and a nephew who had won eight times between them,” says Giannopoulou. “His life was spared, but afterwards the coaches had to attend the Games naked.”
Here are some of the sports that ancient Greek athletes participated in.
1. Chariot races
Chariot racing was one of the oldest Greek sports. Artistic evidence on ancient pottery suggests that the event dates back to Greek times. Mycenaean period from 1600 to 1100 BC, and the poet Homer describes a chariot race organized during the funeral of Patroclus in the Iliad, Giannopoulou notes. First included in the Olympic Games in 680 BC, drivers competed in four- and two-horse chariot races.
According to Miller, the race consisted of 12 laps around a hippodrome, or horse track, and then 12 times in the opposite direction. The actual duration varied depending on where the event took place. Chariot racing was an expensive sport, and the owners of the horses and chariots, who watched the drivers compete on their behalf, took advantage of the event to display their wealth. Racecourses had no separation in the center of the oval, head-on collisions between chariots and teams of horses sometimes occurred, making chariot racing an extremely dangerous sport.
2. Horse racing
Kele, or riders competing on horseback, was added to the Olympic Games in 648 BC, according to Miller’s book. The race was approximately 1.2 kilometers (about three-quarters of a mile). The jockeys, who were young boys and probably slaves, rode bareback, without stirrups, but they had reins and a whip to guide the horses.
The Greeks loved running, especially stadiumwhich takes its name from an ancient unit of measurement and corresponds to the modern 200-meter track sprint, according to Stephen Gaylord Miller. Ancient Greek athletics. From 776 to 726 BC, it was the only event in the Olympic Games. The Greeks later added the Diaulos, the equivalent of today’s 400 meter event, as well as a distance event, the Dolichos, which measured between 7.5 and 9 kilometers, roughly similar to the 10k event that countless recreational runners now participate in every weekend. But the Greeks experienced an event that has no modern equivalent: the hoplitodromosin which competitors imitated Greek infantry and ran with bronze helmets and shin guards and carried shields.
In ancient Greek-style wrestling, grapplers fought from a standing position, aiming to knock the opponent to the ground, according to Miller. The idea of pinning an opponent’s shoulders to the ground did not yet exist. Instead, wrestlers won a match by throwing an opponent three times. Another unique feature of this ancient event was that there were no weight classes, according to Lunt. The most formidable wrestler of ancient times was Milos of Crotonewho, in legend, developed his great strength by lifting and carrying a newborn calf until it grew into a full-sized ox.
The discus and javelin, in modern field events, date back to the ancient Greeks, but at the time they were not separate events. Instead, they were part of the pentathlon, a combination of five events that included long jump, running and wrestling. The Greeks had lead or stone weights, called halters, which some believe jumpers used to propel themselves further during competition, although Lunt believes these weights were only used in training.
Unlike modern boxing, the Greek version had no rounds or time limits. Instead, boxers I just fought until a man is unable to continue or admits to being beaten. As with wrestling, Greek boxers competed in a single open division and wore thin leather straps called himantes around their knuckles and wrists, but not padded gloves.
The sport, whose name means “complete victory” in ancient Greek, was a kind of no-holds-barred version of modern mixed martial arts. According to Thomas A. Green Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia, Vol.1, competitors used some of the same techniques as modern MMA, including boxing punches, elbows, knee strikes, low kicks aimed at an opponent’s legs, submission holds and takedowns. They were also allowed to punch or kick their opponents in the groin, which is not allowed in MMA, and unlike modern UFC fighters, they did not wear gloves, which allowed them to use karate-style stabbing. Only bites and cuts were prohibited.
According to Michael B. Poliakoff Combat sports in the ancient world: competition, violence and culture, Sostratos of Sikyon won many crowns in competitions by painfully bending his opponents’ fingers until they were in danger of breaking (another technique banned in MMA).
Instead of the octagon, with its padded surface, competitors fought in a sandbox. The result was a bloody and brutal fight that tested not only the athlete’s fighting skills, but also his ability to endure pain. As a writer of the 2nd century AD Lucien described, fighters punched each other until their mouths were full of blood and sand, while a referee “encouraged them and praised the one who delivered the blow.”
Ancient Greek athletes earned nothing comparable to the astronomical salaries NBA and NFL players receive today, even though they had the opportunity to win prizes. At the Panathenaea, the games held in honor of Athens and Athena, the winner of a foot race received 200 large ornate pots filled with olive oil.
“I guess he could sell it, otherwise it would be a lifetime supply,” Lunt says. But for many former competitors, the adulation of the crowds and the chance to achieve immortality through their abilities may have been reward enough.