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Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Ancient Sports

In societies that engaged in constant waring, health and strength were of the utmost importance for the young men and as the warm temperature in certain societies often dictated the wearing of a minimum of clothing, the beauty of such a body could also be of relevance, both as an aesthetic value and in imitation of the perfection of the gods. The Egyptians engaged in many sports and revered the perfect body. To the north there is evidence of sports like bull-leaping, acrobatics, wrestling, and boxing, found on relief vases, wall frescoes, seals, and in figurines in Minoan Crete . The "Boxer Vase" (right), from sixteenth century BCE Hagia Triada in Crete, has several bands of relief depicting wrestling, bull-leaping, and boxing. Leaping and somersaulting over bulls had appeared as early as 2000 BCE. Boxing also appears and the figures show a clenched fist, and sometimes wear hand-coverings or ancient boxing gloves. The four major Minoan Palaces of Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia, and Zakro contained L shaped theatres that could hold up to 500 spectators and central courts ideal for bull-leaping. The Minoans had extensive trading contact with the Egyptians and the sporting influence from Egypt may have passed to the Minoans and then to Greece. A subsequent invasion of the aggressive Dorians from the North may have eventually added the competitive spirit to the games we know of in Greece. The art of wrestling imbued with ritual and spiritualism has a tradition going back three thousand years in India and Persia. Also from India and exported into China and beyond were the martial arts. South America was rich in sporting activities, but the deadliness of certain ball games appears to be a deterrent to reviving such cultural antiquities. Ball games from the Norse civilisation is also recorded. As mentioned, Egyptian culture may have influenced the development of Greek games in terms of an appreciation for the athletic human body and the value of games as performance. The festival Games in Ancient times were conducted with the athletes being naked. No doubt it was an obvious choice as the body was honoured in those times and wrestling or running for example would be much easier without restricting clothes. Perhaps there was a spiritual significance to this as the games were often held in honour of the gods and as an element of victory celebrations or funeral ceremonies. Alexander the Great often mounted Games to rejuvenate his army, after successful and hard won battles, or to mark events such as the death of his lover Hyphastion. Also amongst the sports in many cultures, were included singing and dancing competitions. Generally such achievement was to display the divine perfection to which they aspired, which itself honoured that which was the central focus of the festival. Many still were known to simply admire the youthful beauty which could be found at the Gymnasium or in the athletic arena, so we must not get carried away by the idea that there was no sexual element or ego involved in such exhibitionism. One was expected to be admired and therefore there must be those who provide the admiration.

The most commonly admired representation of human achievement through many periods of history, including our own, is the image of the athlete. The word itself originating from 'athlos', meaning - contest. In Greece a ten member panel examined and assessed the athlete on their parentage, character and physical endowments. There are two major facets of competition in human society, one being battle and the other being the peaceful form of war i.e. sport. We may respect wisdom, scientific, musical or literary achievement, but what we most often admire is someone being physically better then someone else. We love and honour a winner, be it a decorated soldier or a medal covered athlete. However, sport has taken many turns throughout history. The Greeks participated in athletics such as running wrestling discus etc. and they also included chariot racing. The original religious significance had been lost by the fifth century BCE and it was seen as good training for warfare and also bringing prestige to the family and eventually the state. The winners were seen to possess a little of the divine in their superiority, and the statues erected to them would sometimes be considered to have miraculous capabilities. Often the sports could be very bloody as well. In the Roman times, the chariot and the gladiator appear to have provided the principal form of entertainment competition. Not until the middle ages did jousting appear, but it was the nineteenth century that saw a return to the less aggressive forms, as we once again returned to the idealised athletic struggle.

Ancient Greece


As we know the gymnasia took it's name from the Greek word 'gymnos' meaning naked. This was a state run centre for training where men and boys met and practiced athletics and the youth also followed intellectual training. Three gymnasia in Athens - the Lyceum, the Academy and the Cynosarges became great schools of philosophy. The physical training was in preparation for war. The complex consisted of an open courtyard for wrestling and the like, a running track, a grand colonnade (the stoa), which could also be used for training during inclement weather and an assortment of cloak rooms, oiling rooms, baths and lecture rooms. The practice of being totally naked was peculiar to Greece and does not appear to be followed elsewhere. Training was done to the accompaniment of rhythmical music and as a high emphasis was placed on both physical strength and aesthetics, a student could be eliminated for lacking in either strength or beauty of appearance. It is known that there existed special diets to compliment the physical needs of different sports.


This was a much simpler and privately owned school for wrestling and gymnastics and consisted of a sand covered courtyard surrounded by changing rooms.


Used as training in preparation for war, athletics date back to the time of Homer. Much prized in Greece and always totally nude, but less popular in Rome although the more educated classes did practice the Greek sports for leisure and relaxation. The Etruscans also followed the Greek games, but were clothed. The main forms were:-

Wrestling:- individuals challenged according to age not weight. It was the most popular sport. The contestants oiled themselves and some dusted themselves for better grip. Three falls of the shoulder or knees touching the ground designated the winner. Biting and genital holds were illegal, but breaking your opponent's fingers was permitted. It is known that Aristotle, Plato and Hypocrites were capable wrestlers.

Pancration:- a more violent form of wrestling where the opponent gave in at the point of strangulation or having a bone broken. Only biting and gouging an opponent's eyes, nose, or mouth with fingernails were banned. There were both men's and boys divisions of this sport which eventually became a highly admired.

Boxing:- A continuos match which ended in a knock-out or a raised hand of submission. They wore soft leather around the fist and knuckles and even ear guards during training, but these could inflict great damage to the opponent. A referee was armed with a stick for disciplining any offence. In gladiatorial Rome the gloves were weighted with metal or spikes. There were no weight classes within the mens' and boys' divisions, and opponents were chosen randomly.

Running:- approximately 200 metre long rectangular track with starting lines, where the competitors traversed it once for a single foot race (stade), turned and ran back for a double foot race (diaulos), or completed twelve circuits for the long distance. There was also a two to four-stadion (384 m. to 768 m.) race in armour. ( the standard hoplite armour of helmet, shield, and greaves weighed about 50-60 lbs. In the 5th century BC there were even mechanical starting gates. The actual length of the stadion was said to be stepped out by Heracles who measured the 600 lengths of his rather large foot. Some festivals included a relay race where the runners ran through the streets and passed a lighted torch. Originally the goal of the race was the great altar of Zeus.

Long Jump:- a sport which is relatively unknown and which saw the contestant carrying weights (halteres). It may also have been from a standing position.

Discus:- Much like the modern equivalent. A lead, bronze, iron or stone circular plate thrown from an upward swing of a straight arm. they weighed around 7kilos but varied for men and boys. The longest throw won.

Javelin:- Also judged on distance thrown in the best of five but it had to hit the ground with it's point. They used a thong attached to fingers and the Javelin (a mans height) which added distance and spin.

Pentathlon:- Contestants entered five events - long jump, foot race, discus throwing, javelin and wrestling.

Chariot Race:- There were two and four horse chariot races, with separate races for chariots drawn by foals. Another race was between carts drawn by two mules. The course was twelve laps around the stadium track (nine miles) or hippodrome. The Chariot race was said to have been started by King Pelops whom myth said was buried near the Temple of Zeus.

Riding:- The course was six laps with separate races for full-grown horses and foals. Riders rode naked and without stirrups. As the training, equipment, and feed of both the jockey and the horses was so expensive, the owner received the olive wreath of victory instead of the rider.


Physical development was much prized in the ancient world and apart from the training in the gymnasia there were also ball games that the youth participated in and in Roman times special ball courts were built. Equestrian and boat races were popular as individual events, but the great Festival Games were by far the most popular. It may be more than coincidence that this happened along with religious events as the large crowds attracted to a religious festival provided the spectators for the athletic competitions. Any city with enough prize-money could and did mount games, where champions were given substantial monetary rewards, but at the religious festivals the prize was generally a simple wreath. One legend traces this to the Elean King Iphitos who was told by the Delphic Oracle to plant an Olive Tree from which the victors' wreaths for the Olympic Games were cut. Alternately Pindar records that it was Heracles who brought the wild olive from the Hyperborean countries. However apart from the official honour the home town of a winner would often shower him with gifts as it had brought them such prestige. Olympic winners paid no tax, were fed free for life and much was to be gained from becoming a hero.

The main circuit of panhellenic festivals were:-

The Olympian games in honour of Zeus in Olympia began in 776BC at which the only event may have been the stadion foot race. They continued until around 256AD but were officially banned in 391AD by the Christian Emperor Theodosius. They were held every four years, which became a dating system and lasted for five days with a truce being initiated for a period both before and after the contest. The athletic events were held in the stadium, except wrestling which may have been contested around the altar of Zeus. The straight track of the stadium was surrounded on three sides by a grass mound on which up to 45,000 spectators could sit or stand. The hippodrome was where the various horse, colt, donkey cart and chariot races were held as each came to or fell from favour. The prize was a wreath from a sacred olive tree believed to have been planted by Heracles.

The Pythian games were held at Delphi in honour of Apollo in conjunction with a musical contest in honour of the god. These were held in the third Olympic year. The prize was a laurel wreath cut from the valley of Tempe.

The Isthmian games on the Isthmus of Corinth in honour of Poseidon were celebrated during the first and third Olympic year. The prize was a wreath of dry wild celery or pine branches. Some say they were founded by Theseus but the came into existence around 580.

The Nemean games were held in the sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea and were said to have been founded by Heracles or the Seven against Thebes. Begun around 573 and held in the second and fourth Olympic year. The prize was a crown of fresh wild celery.

The Greek states and others were in a constant state of war over even the most minor causes, but for the Olympic festival, held every four years, a truce or 'ekecheiria', which means 'holding of hands' was announced before and during the games. Messengers were sent out as far away as France and to the Baltic Sea. This armistice (eventually deified) allowed visitors and competitors to travel safely to Olympia. A bronze inscription describing the truce was displayed at Olympia. Wars were suspended, armies were prohibited from entering Elis or threatening the Games, and legal disputes and the carrying out of death penalties were forbidden. Elis had restarted the Games after a visit to the oracle at Delphi, and the city itself, just north of Olympia acted as the Olympic village prior to the Games, but for the competition itself all travelled to the sanctuary of Olympia which contained the great temple of Zeus and also a temple to his wife Hera. (The athletes entrance to the stadium at left and the stadium itself at right with the starting block visible.) Here the elite were housed in a huge Guest House while most slept out in the open. The athletes themselves were more often than not soldiers and even though we are used to thinking of the games in our terms as a time of idealism and peace, some events like the pancration and boxing could end in death. Violent as these two events were there were strict rules which forbad cheating as well as bringing hatred to the competition.

The most common myth surrounding the origin of the Olympic Games was that of Pelops, a prince from Lydia in Asia Minor who wished to marry the daughter of King Oinomaos. To do so any suitor must compete against the King in a Chariot race and if he lost he would be beheaded. Pelops replaced a pin with wax in the chariot of the King who was then killed. Pelops married Hippodamia and founded the Olympic games to celebrate his victory. A different version says they were funeral games in the memory of Oinomaos. The Delphi Charioteer right and if you ever get the chance to see it up close you will be stunned to see the fine eyelashes on the statue - left. Another myth comes from the Tenth Olympian Ode (one of may variations) of the poet Pindar who tells how in his fifth labour, Herakles had to clean the stables of King Augeas of Elis. After disagreements, broken promises etc. Herakles sacked the city of Elis and instituted the Olympic Games in honour of his father, Zeus. He is said to have taught men how to wrestle and measured or stepped out the stade (originally 192 metres), or the length of the stadium and the first footrace which he is said to have run in a single breath.

The Olympic Games

The Strong son of Zeus' drove the whole of his host

And all his booty to Pisa,

And measured a holy place

For his mighty Father.

He fenced the Altis and marked it off

In a clean space, and the ground encircling it

He set for rest at supper

In honour of the ford of Alpheos

And the twelve Kings of the Gods.

To Kronos' Hill he gave a name: for before

It was nameless when Oinomaos ruled,

And drenched with many a snowstorm.

In this first birthday-rite

The Fates stood near at hand,

And he who alone proves the very truth,

Time. In his forward march

He has revealed all clearly:

How Herakles portioned the booty, war gift,

Made sacrifice and founded

The fourth year's feast

With the first Olympiad

And the winning of victories.

Pindar 518 - 438 BC who wrote Odes for the 4 great festivals

A rather uncharitable and warning Ode for Aristomenes of Aegina who was the winner of the boy's wrestling at the Pythian games

And now four times you came dawn with bodies beneath you

(You meant them harm)

To whom the Pythian feast has given

No glad home-coming like yours.

They, when they meet their mothers,

Have no sweet laughter around them moving delight.

In back streets; disaster has bitten them.

But who, in his tender years,

Finds some new lovely thing,

His hope is high, and he flies

On wings of his manhood:

Better than riches are his thoughts.

- But man's pleasure is a short time growing

And it falls to the ground

As quickly, when an unlucky twist of thought

Loosens its roots.

Man's life is a day. What is he?

What is he not? A shadow in a dream

Is man: but when God sheds a brightness,

Shining life is on earth

Other Games Comments

Today we like to think that our athletic heroes are there solely because of their talent, which has to be considerable, but it is certainly true that an attractive sportsman is seen, heard and sponsored more often then a talented fellow competitor who has not been blessed by the Graces. Perhaps this is where we are at fault in an ideal or 'correct' world, but has not millions of years of evolution guided us towards seeking out the best looking and the strongest as our way of genetically modifying every species towards what we consider perfection. Once again I have to acknowledge the balance to this argument, that the mind or soul is the twin that must also be satisfied, but does not the soul shine more brightly from the eyes of a good man and thus is beauty revealed. A fleeting blossoming of youth can soon be eroded by a mind not nourished by ideals higher than a simple and narrow need to better an opponent.

Aristotle believed that when boys trained too young, it sapped them of their strength. He believed that the first three years after puberty should be spent on study before he began athletic exertions, because physical and intellectual development could not occur at the same time.

American painter Thomas Eakins, friend and neighbour of Walt Whitman photographed his art students wrestling in 1883. Photos of nudes were used as the basis for his paintings to convey the Greek ideal of friendship and male beauty. This was a theme taken up by many early photographers. Strength, exertion, movement and musculature to reveal an ideal as they saw it.

The Ancient Egyptians, also participated in many sports with rules, referees, uniforms and winners receiving special collars. It is believed they participated in wrestling, boxing, weightlifting, long jump, stick-fighting, swimming, rowing, shooting, fishing and athletics, as well as various ball games. The Pharaoh and nobles were patrons of such competitions.

In many Egyptian tombs, paintings and glyphs depicting sports events have been found. Particularly acrobatics, hop and jump, ball games, and wrestling. However acrobats, usually women and boys, were mainly viewed as performers. Wrestling in loin-cloths was practiced mainly as part of Egyptian military training, but there are 200 wrestling groups depicted in a tomb at Beni-Hassan. It was certainly competitive for the pair involved. There were also various running activities. On the King’s"jubilee celebration," he would run alone between two sets of three cosmic semicircles and at the pyramid complex of Djoser are the ruins of the world's first running track. Hard evidence appears of two other activities, archery and chariot riding, with bows and chariots being found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Actual chariot races may not have existed, but been rather the honour of perfecting the art of driving a chariot.

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