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Nine facts about athletics in Ancient Greece

The World Championships in Athletics takes place this month in Moscow. Since 1983 the championship has grown in size and now includes around 200 participating countries and territories, giving rise to the global prominence of athletics. The Ancient Greeks were some of the earliest to begin holding competitions around athletics, with each Greek state competing in a series of sporting events in the city of Olympia once every four years. J.C. McKeown unearths some amusing and surprising facts about the Greeks in A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities, including their sporting traditions.

  1. In early times it was custom for athletes to compete with their clothes tucked up, but Coroebus ran naked when he won the short footrace at Olympia.
  2. The sprint (two hundred meters) was the only competitive event in the first 13 Olympic Games.
  3. If you place heavy weights on a plank of palm wood, pressing it until it can no longer bear the load, it does not give way downward, bending in a concave manner. Instead it rises up to counter the weight, with a convex curve. This is why, according to Plutarch, the palm has been chosen to represent victory in athletic competitions; the nature of the wood is such that it does not yield to pressure.
  4. Athletes sometimes had their penis tied up to assist freedom of movement. The foreskin was pulled forward and tied up with a string called the cynodesme, which literally means “dog leash”.
  5. Mosaic floor Museum of Olympia

  6. A Chian was angry with his slave and said to him “I’m not going to send you to the mill, I’m going to take you to Olympia.” He apparently considered it a far more bitter punishment to be a spectator roasting in the rays of the sun, than to be put to work grinding flour in a mill.
  7. A corpse was once pronounced victor. Arrhachion was wrestling in the final at Olympia. While his opponent was squeezing his neck, he broke one of his opponent’s toes. Arrhachion died of suffocation just as his opponent gave in because of the pain in his toe.
  8. Marcus once ran in the race in armour. He was still running at midnight, and the stadium authorities locked up because he was one of the stone statues. When they opened up again, he had finished the first lap.
  9. When a humble and inferior boxer is matched against a famous opponent who has never been defeated, the spectators immediately side with the weaker figure, shouting encouragement to him and punching when he does.
  10. Euripides competed as a boxer at the Isthmian and Nemean Games, and was crowned as victor.

J.C. McKeown is Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, co-editor of the Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature, and author of Classical Latin: An Introductory Course and A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities. He is the author of A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities published by OUP in July 2013.

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Image credit: Mosaic floor depicting various athletes wearing wreaths. From the Museum of Olympia. Photo by Tkoletsis. Creative commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

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