The ancient Greeks, who organized the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, gave the world the idea of holding large-scale sporting events as entertainment for arenas full of spectators. More than that, they were the first culture in which people idolized their favorite sports superstars, on a level that even today’s most fanatical sports fans might find extreme.
“The Greeks believed that athletes had special powers,” says David Lunt, associate 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 to sing about them, and they told stories about statues of athletes who could heal people.”
Lunt cites the example of Theagenes of Thasos, boxing champion, runner and competitor of Pankration, the ancient equivalent of mixed martial arts, who was so idolized for his athletic prowess that archaeologists in the 1930s found an altar on which he was venerated centuries after his death. As Lunt says, “They were pretty crazy for these athletes.”
The ancient Greeks may have loved sports because men participated in them growing up. As Lunt notes, each Greek town had its own gymnasium, where local men stripped off their clothes and competed naked in various sports, such as wrestling and foot races.
“The Greeks valued physical and athletic prowess, and the toned male body was sought after as an aesthetic,” says Zina Giannopoulou, an associate professor of classics at the University of California, Irvine, who has compared the ancient and modern Olympics. “Physical strength and prowess were also signs of moral strength, denoting self-discipline, hard work, and dedication to victory.” Athletes were considered the epitome of fish bonea Greek word meaning virtue or excellence.
The Greeks also liked to simply watch the competitions. In addition to the Olympic Games every four years, they held games on other religious holidays – 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 known collectively, featured a range of events, from chariot races to athletics events and combat sports.
The athletes who participated 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 make it to the Olympics, you had to show up at least a month early to train under the supervision of the officials, who would probably eliminate anyone who wasn’t at competitive level,” says Lunt.
The Greeks had no team sports, only individual competitions, and they did not allow women to participate in events or even, in the case of married women, to attend the games. There was a legendary exception – Kallipateira from Rhodes, who disguised herself as a male trainer so she could watch her son’s boxing match. “When she was arrested, she defended herself by saying that she, of all women, should be allowed to attend, having had a father, three brothers, a son and a nephew who between them had earned eight times,” says Giannopoulou. “His life was spared, but afterwards the coaches had to attend the Games naked.”
Here are some of the sports in which the athletes of ancient Greece participated.
1. Chariot races
Chariot racing was one of the oldest Greek sports – artistic evidence on ancient pottery suggests the event dates back to the Mycenaean period of 1600-1100 BC, and the poet Homer describes a chariot race held during the funeral of Patroclus in the Iliad, notes Giannopoulou. First included in the Olympics in 680 BC, drivers competed in four- and two-horse chariot races.
According to Miller, the race consisted of 12 laps around a racetrack, or racetrack, and then 12 times in the opposite direction. The actual duration varied depending on where the event was taking place. Chariot racing was an expensive sport, and the owners of the horses and chariots – who watched the drivers compete on their behalf – used the event to display their wealth. The racetracks had no divider in the center of the oval, head-on collisions between chariots and horse teams sometimes occurred, which made chariot racing an extremely dangerous sport.
2. Horse racing
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Kele, or riders competing on horseback, was added to the Olympics in 648 BC, according to Miller’s book. The race was about 1.2 kilometers (about three quarters of a mile) in length. The jockeys – who were young boys and probably slaves – rode bareback, without stirrups, although they had reins and a whip to guide the horses.
The Greeks loved running, especially Stadiumwhich was named after an ancient unit of measurement and corresponded to the modern track 200 meter 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 dialogs, the equivalent of today’s 400 meters, as well as a distance event, the dolichos, which was between 7.5 and 9 kilometers – roughly similar to the 10K event that countless recreational runners now participate in every weekend. But the Greeks had an event that has no modern equivalent – the hoplitodromosin which competitors imitated Greek infantry and raced with bronze helmets and shin guards and carried shields.
In ancient Greek-style wrestling, grapplers fought from a standing position, with the goal of knocking the opponent to the ground, according to Miller. The concept 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 the old event was that there were no weight classes, according to Lunt. The most formidable wrestler of ancient times was Milos of Kroton, who, according to legend, developed his great strength by lifting and carrying a newborn calf until it grew into a full-sized ox.
The discus and the javelin, for modern field events, date back to the ancient Greeks, but back then they were not separate events. Instead, they were part of the pentathlon, a five-event combination that also included long jump, running and wrestling. The Greeks had lead or stone weights, called halters, which some believe jumpers used for the purpose of further propelling themselves during competition, although Lunt believes the weights were only used in training.
Unlike modern boxing, the Greek version had no rounds or time limits. Instead, boxers simply fought until one man was unable to continue or admitted he was beaten. Like wrestling, Greek boxers competed in a single open division, and they wore thin leather straps called himantes around knuckles and wrists, but no padded gloves.
This sport, whose name means “complete victory” in ancient Greek, was a kind of limitless 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, elbow strikes, knee strikes, low kicks aimed at an opponent’s legs, submission holds and holds on the ground. 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 which allowed them to use karate-style stabs. Only bites and cuts were prohibited.
According to Michael B. Poliakoff Combat sports in the ancient world: competition, violence and culture, Sikyon’s Sostratos has won many crowns in competitions by painfully bending his opponents’ fingers until they risk breaking (another forbidden technique in MMA).
Instead of the octagon, with its padded surface, competitors battled in a sandbox. The result was a bloody and brutal competition that not only tested an athlete’s fighting skills, but also his ability to endure pain. As the 2nd-century CE writer Lucian described it, combatants would smack each other until their mouths were full of blood and grit, as a referee “admonishes them and praises him who bore the shot”.
Athletes in ancient Greece earned nothing comparable to the astronomical salaries that NBA and NFL players receive today, although they did have the opportunity to win prizes. At the Panathenaic Games held in honor of Athens and Athena, the winner of a foot race received 200 large ornate jars 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 crowd and the chance to achieve immortality through their ability may have been reward enough.