A Modern Perspective of the Ancient Olympic Events

Today’s Modern (Summer) Olympic Games have 32 different categories of competitive events. When you consider that of these many, like track and field, have several events within the category and then break down further to men’s and women’s and team and individual competition, it is nearly impossible to keep track of the Games as they progress. Things were simpler in the old days. The Ancient Olympics had 13 events divided into 6 main categories. Of course they were for men only.

The main categories were boxing, equestrian events, pnkration, pentathlon, running and jumping. The Equestrian events were broken down into two sub-categories: chariot racing and riding. The Pentathlon was a combination of five events: discus, javelin, jump, running, and wrestling.

Boxing in ancient Greece had fewer rules than boxing today. There were no rounds and boxers fought until one of them was knocked out, or admitted he had been beaten. There was no rule that prevented a boxer from hitting an opponent when he was down. There was no weight class in either the men’s or boy’s divisions and the contestants were chosen randomly. The boxers did not wear gloves but wrapped their hands and wrists with leather straps called himantes. Their fingers were left free.

Equestrian events were divided into classes of chariot racing and riding. The chariot races consisted of both the 2-horse chariot and the 4-horse chariot and there were separate races for chariots drawn by foals. There was a race of carts included in this event that consisted of competition between carts drawn by teams of 2 mules. The length of the chariot races was 12 laps around the stadium track which was approximately 9 miles.

Riding was the other equestrian event and the course was 6 laps around the stadium track which equaled 4.5 miles. The jockeys rode without stirrups and the races were broken down into competition between foals and full-grown horses. Because it was so expensive to train, feed and equip the participants the owners were awarded the olive wreath of victory instead of the riders.

Probably the most physical event of the Ancient Olympic Games was the pankration. This grueling event consisted of both boxing and wrestling. The hands were not wrapped in the leather himantes. The only limitations on physical brutality were the rules against biting and gouging the opponent’s eyes, nose, or mouth with fingernails. Kicking in any part of the body was allowed. There were separate divisions for men and boys, but like in boxing there was no weight division and the opponents were chosen at random.

The pentathlon, like the modern event, consisted of a 5-event combination. The 5 events of the Ancient Olympic Games were discus, javelin, jumping, running and wrestling. The Greeks considered this the most beautiful of the contests because it combined the endurance of the race course and the bodily strength necessary for the other physical events. The discus was made of iron, stone, bronze, or lead and was shaped to resemble the discus of today. The sizes varied and the boys competed with a lighter weight than the men. The ancient Greeks thought the precision and rhythm of an athlete throwing the discus as important as his strength.

The javelin was a throwing event as in the modern games and like the discus the competition was based on the distance the object was thrown and in the case of the javelin the precision. The javelin was made of wood, with either a sharpened end or an attached metal point. The javelin had a thong for the throwers’  fingers that was attached close to the center of gravity of the instrument that increased the precision and distance of the throw.

The jump event was similar to the modern long jump but with a major exception. The jumpers carried stone or lead weights called halteres. These weights, shaped like telephone receivers, were carried out in front of the jumper when they jumped the weights were thrust backward and dropped during the descent to increase the distance of the jump.

Running was broken down into 4 types of races in the Ancient Olympic Games. The stadion was the oldest of the events and consisted of a sprint covering one stade (192 meters) which was the length of the stadium. Other races were the 2-stade race and the long distance run ranged from 7 to 24 stades. The most grueling of the races was the warrior race designed to build and test the speed and stamina Greek men needed for military service. The race was 2 to 4-stades in distance and was run by an athlete wearing armor. The standard armor of that time weighed approximately 50-60 pounds and of course included a helmet and shield.

Wrestling was similar to the modern sport in that the athlete was required to throw his opponent to the ground landing on a hip, shoulder, or back for a fair fall. To win a match required 3 fair falls or throws. Genital holds and biting were not allowed and breaking your opponent’s fingers was also not permitted.

The art and sculpture of ancient Greece is alive with the depictions of the Olympics and the events described in this article. One can feel the excitement and spirit of the Ancient Olympic Games in that art. In modern games the spirit of the Olympism of old is recreated in the ceremonies and competitiveness of the event.