Authors: Raymond Stefani
25032 Via Del Rio
Lake Forest, CA 92630
Dr. Raymond Stefani is a professor emeritus of the California State University, Long Beach with over 160 publications covering individual sports, team sports and sports history
Ancient Olympic Superstars and the Remarkable Skills They Could Teach Today’s Athletes
A data base of Ancient Olympic events was exhaustively researched by the Perseus Project and combined into one table by Wikipedia, containing nearly 900 results. The Wikipedia table was sorted to obtain the distribution of events and to identify the most successful Olympians of Ancient Greece. From 776 BC through 277 AD, just 30 events were contested, eight of which were offered only once. An average of only 3.5 events were contested in each Olympics. Of the five sports, track and field (called athletics internationally) comprised 49% of all contested events with the 200 m stadion sprint, comprising 30% of all contested events. Competition was so highly focused that winning once was very difficult and winning repeatedly was remarkable. From the sorted winners, 12 superstars of antiquity are chosen for discussion. These superstars include the most unlikely winner in that men’s Olympics, a woman, Kyniska of Sparta, who became a double winner by owning and training the horses that won two chariot races. Leonides of Rhodes won all three of the major running events four times successively, for 12 individual wins, not exceeded until 2016 by Michael Phelps. Herodoros of Megara won the trumpeter’s competition nine consecutive times. Two wrestlers won the boy’s event followed later by five successive wins in the open competition. The emperor Nero of Rome won six times, showing venerability by acting and playing the lyre in public. The pentathlete Phayllos of Kroton outfitted and commanded a battleship at the 480 BC Battle of Salamis, helping Greece defeat Persia. One of the few recorded measurements of Ancient Greece, his long jump of 55 feet has been nearly duplicated by five successive standing long jumps, each employing a re-invented strategy for jumping with weights in each hand. The remarkable skills of those 12 may serve as inspirations for today’s athletes.
Key words: Ancient Olympics, running, track and
field, long jump, wrestling, psychological toughness, training, superstars,
Scholarly works such as The Sport Journal provide the athlete of today with in-depth, longitudinal studies regarding the use of nutrition and training to generate strength. Image capture equipment and automated observation identifies proper techniques; which, with effective coaching and proper equipment, provides the efficient conversion of strength into performance. Sports psychology helps the athlete make good use of strength and efficiency. Videos and movies provide today’s athletes with a direct link to the greats of the recent past.
On one hand, the athletes of Ancient Greece lacked that modern technology. They were coached based on observational skills. They trained by trail-and-error. They adopted the nutritional standards of their time. Based on suggestions passed on from past generations, they performed intuitively. On the other hand, many of those athletes accomplished such remarkable feats that today’s athletes would be well served by learning from these superstars of Ancient Greece. See (5) for a thorough discussion of sports in Ancient Greece.
The quadrennial Olympic Games dominate our modern sports world; which may give us a false perspective into sports in Ancient Greece. Indeed, in 776 BC, a stadium at Olympia was built for the Olympic Games, then held every four years as today (5,7). However, about 200 years later, stadia were built in 582 BC at Delphi for the Pythian games, in 581 BC at Isthmia for the Isthmian games and in 573 BC at Nemea for the Nemean Games (5,10,12,13,16). A four-year cycle was then formed: The Olympic Games were held in year one, the Nemean and Isthmian Games were both held in years two and four while the Pythian Games were held in year three, creating six Panhellenic Games every four years.
The Olympic Games were much better documented in Ancient Greece than the other three Games. The Persius Project (7) collected and translated ancient texts to create chronological tables, organized by era, of Olympic Games dates, events, winners and their cities of origin from 776 BC to 277 AD, although some data are incomplete. Wikipedia (14) combined the Perseus Project’s tables into one. We have downloaded that table and sorted it by dates, by events and by winners. The Wikipedia data includes 900 contested events (861 of which show winners) covering 260 contested Olympic Games. The Games were therefore highly focused, with an average of only 3.5 events per Olympiad. To win an event, the competitor obviously had to defeat a large and highly focused cadre.Table 1: Events of the Ancient Olympics Sorted by Sport
|Events (30)||Comments/Distance||First Year||Last Year||Times Held (861)|
|Athletics/Track and Field (7 Events, 419 Times Held, 49% of Competition)|
|Stadion||X1, 192 m||776 BC||273 AD||254|
|Stadion-Boys||X1, 192 m||632 BC||133 AD||31|
|Diaulos||X2, 384 m||724 BC||153 AD||43|
|Diaulos in Armor||X2, 384 m||520 BC||185 AD||28|
|Dolichos||X7-24, 1344-4608 m||720 BC||221 AD||30|
|Pentathlon||Stadion, Discus, Javelin,
Long Jump, Wrestling
|708 BC||241 AD||32|
|Pentathlon (Boys)||Stadion, Discus, Javelin,
Long Jump, Wrestling
|628 BC||628 BC||1|
|Combat (6 Events, 279 Times Held, 32% of Competition)|
|Boxing||688 BC||25 AD||61|
|Boxing-Boys||540 BC||89 AD||40|
|Pankration||No holds barred.||648 BC||221 AD||70|
|Pankration-Boys||No holds barred.||200 BC||117 AD||7|
|Wrestling||708 BC||213 AD||68|
|Wrestling-Boys||632 BC||97 AD||33|
|Chariot Racing (10 Events, 94 Times Held, 11% of Competition)|
|Apene||2 mules, x6, 7.2 km||500 BC||456 BC||4|
|Chariot Race||65 AD||120 AD||2|
|Chariot-Foals||65 AD||65 AD||1|
|10 Horse Chariot||65 AD||65 AD||1|
|Synoris||2 horses, x6, 7.2 km||408 BC||60 AD||14|
|Synoris-Foals||2 foals, x6, 7.2 km||96 BC||1 AD||3|
|Synoris-Colts||2 colts, x6, 7.2 km||264 BC||264 BC||1|
|Tethrippon||4 horses, x12, 14.4 km||680 BC||241 AD||60|
|Tethrippon-Foals||4 foals, x12, 14.4 km||372 BC||153 AD||7|
|Tethrippon-Colts||4 colts, x12, 14.4 km||384 BC||384 BC||1|
|Equestrian Racing (3 Events, 36 Times Heled, 4% of Competition)|
|Foals’ Race||X6, 7.2 KM||256 BC||72 BC||7|
|Horse Race||X6, 7.2 KM||648 BC||197 AD||28|
|Mares’ Race||X6, 7.2 KM||496 BC||496 BC||1|
|Artistic performance (4 Events, 33 Times Held, 4% of Competition)|
|Herald Competition||Gap of 420 years until 65 AD||396 BC||261 AD||12|
|Lyre Playing||65 AD||65 AD||1|
|Tragedy Competition||65 AD||65 AD||1|
|Trumpeter Competition||396 BC||217 AD||19|
Table 1 summarizes the 861 events in which winners were documented. There are five sports and just 30 events, eight of which were contested only once. The greatest number of contested events at one Games was 19 in 72 BC. Track and field (called athletics outside of the USA) covered 49% of all events contested. The running track was laid out using Greek measurement standards (8). One plethron was 100 Greek feet. Six plethra constituted one stadion, giving us the modern word stadium and setting the running track at 600 Greek feet. Archaeologists have determined that the Greek foot used at Olympia was 1.05 standard feet (8), so that the running length was 192 m. At the other three stadia, the Greek foot was just less than the standard foot and thus about the length of an anatomical foot. It is likely that the other three stadia were laid out bare-footed, while at Olympia some sort of foot covering was worn as 600 feet were measured.
There were 22 running lanes, which this researcher has personally verified as the starting blocks still exist. The nearly 200 m stadion was the most popular event, covering 30% of all contested events over the 1000-year Olympic history. In fact, the first 13 Olympics consisted of only the stadion. The nearly 400 m diaulos and diaulos with armor required running in lane to the other end of the stadium, circling a post between lanes and returning in the adjacent lane. The dolichos was a longer race of varying distance. The pentathlon was an elimination event involving a stadion, long jump, discus throw and javelin throw, ending with the remaining competitors wrestling for the winner’s wreath.
Combat sports covered 32% of competition, featuring boxing, the pankration and wrestling for men and boys. Chariot racing covered 11% of competition, generally involving two and four-horse chariots drawn by foals, colts and horses. Equestrian racing involved 4% of competition with foals, horses and mares running.
The physically demanding events were balanced by a few artistic performance events covering 4% of competition. Dominant among these were the herald and trumpeter competitions. Those skills were very practical in Ancient Greece, which lacked amplifiers at public events. The herald could announce information to be heard widely yet clearly. Trumpeters could command movements both for a public crowd and for troops in combat.
The rest of this research paper will begin by sorting the Wikipedia Olympics data to identify the most successful winners of the Ancient Olympics. Next, their dominant skills will be identified as a guide to their modern counterparts. A few significant winners from the other Games will also be analyzed.
SUPERSTARS OF THE ANCIENT OLYMPICS
The rules dictating who could attend the Olympic Games, who could compete and who could win were based on the religious and fair-play standards of the day (5). The Olympic Games were dedicated to Zeus, a male god, therefore only men could compete, unmarried women could and did attend, but married women were not permitted to attend. The men competing as jockeys and as chariot drivers were paid and thus considered to be professionals, who could not receive the champion’s wreath. That wreath went instead to the person who owned the winning horses.
That combination of rules created the most surprising entry in the Wikipedia table of winners (14), a married woman, Kyniska of Sparta (1,5,11), who was a double Olympic champion. She knew that she could neither attend nor compete inside the hippodrome. However, she could become the official champion if horses she owned won a chariot race. She must have had a combination of a confident personality and an acute sense of organization and detail, because she would have had to hire and instruct male workers who would be responsible to train the horses, maintain the horses and move them to Olympia for competition. She would have had to hire and instruct a chariot driver who had to follow her plans faithfully. She taught us not to be afraid to challenge the status quo, since others may later befit from our actions. For example, another woman, Bilistiche of Macedonia, followed Klyniska’s example and became a triple champion. Her horses won three chariot races: the foals tethrippon in 268 BC and both the two-horse synoris and colts synoris in 264 BC (1,14). Sadly, no lists are available for winners of the women’s Heraean Games (5,11), dedicated to Zeus’ mythical wife Hera. Those Games were held at Olympia in non-Olympic years. The running distances for women were reduced to multiples of 500 Greek feet.
The Wikipedia table (14) was sorted to identify the athletes with the most wins. Table 2 contains the top eight, who won from 6 to 12 times. Four were from the sport of track and field. They each competed in the stadion, diaulos and diaulos with armor over three or four successive Olympics. In chronological order, Chionis of Sparta won six of the nine events over three Olympics from 664 BC to 656 BC. Astylos of Kroton and Syracuse (Greek colonies in Italy) improved on that total by one, winning seven of nine from 488 BC to 480 BC. Leonides of Rhodes became arguably the greatest Ancient Olympian by winning all three events over four consecutive Games from 164 BC to 152 BC for a total of 12 wins. One muscle spasm, slip in a start, awkward turn, or poor straightway run during any of the multiple heats of those 12 events would have terminated his win streak, yet he persisted in 12 of 12 competitions over a 12-year span. Leonides’ 12 individual wins remained the Olympic best for over 2100 years until Michael Phelps won his 13th in 2016. The last among the four to compete, Hermogenes of Xantha equaled Chionis’ win count of six out of nine over the three Games from 81 AD to 89 AD.
Leonides’ feats, and the feats of the other three, involved a significant element of mental toughness. After early wins, each would have been a significant target for the other athletes, and yet they each persisted over and over again. To maintain their physical abilities for eight to 12 years required well thought out and executed nutrition, muscle-specific training and attention to technique.
Hipposthenes of Sparta and Milon of Kroton followed a common pattern in winning six times each in wrestling. Each won in boy’s wrestling followed eight years later with the first of a series of five consecutive wins in men’s competition. The boy’s competition apparently served them well. Being able to see senior competition first hand, would aid an aspiring young athlete to ease the transition to senior competition both technically and psychologically.
Herodorus of Magara earned the second highest number of wins in Table 2, nine, all of which were in the trumpeter’s competition, over successive Olympics from 328 BD to 296 BC. We can only wonder about his tonal quality, his note sequences and his showmanship. After two or three wins, other contestants would have been driven to challenge him and judges may have become more demanding of him, yet he persisted. By the end of his Olympic career, he was probably in his 50s, close to the life expectancy of his time, so he likely worked to remain physically and psychologically fit.Table 2: Most Prolific Winners of Ancient Olympic Events
|Wins||Athlete||From||Sport||Events||Range of Years|
|12||Leonides||Rhodes||Track & Field||Stadion (4), Diaulos (4),
Diaulos with Armor (4)
|164 BC-152 BC|
|9||Herodoros||Megara||Artistic Perf.||Trumpeter Comp. (9)||328 BC–296 BC|
|7||Astylos||Kroton and Syrscuse||Track & Field||Stadion (3), Diaulos (3),
Diaulos with Armor (1)
|488 BC–480 BC|
|6||Chionis||Sparts||Track & Field||Stadion (3), Diaulos (3)||664 BC–656 BC|
|6||Hermogenes||Xanthos||Track & Field||Stadion (2), Diaulos (1),
Diaulos with Armor (3)
|81 AD–89 AD|
|6||Hipposthenes||Sparta||Combat||Wrestling-Boys (1), Wrestling (5)||632 BC–608 BC|
|6||Milon||Kroton||combat||Wrestling-Boys (1), Wrestling (5)||540 BC–516 BC|
|Chariot Race, Chariot-Foals,
10-Horse Chariot, Lyre Playing,
Tragedy Comp., Herald Comp.
Table 2 contains a rather understated entry, Nero of Rome, who won six times, all in 65 BC. From Table 1, we see that four of his wins were in events only contested once: the chariot race for foals, the 10-horse chariot race, lyre playing and tragedy competition. A fifth win was in the Herald competition that had been restored in 65 BC after a 420-year hiatus while a sixth win was noted simply as chariot race, a term found only one other time. Clearly, that schedule of six events had been created just for Nero and it was unlikely that he would lose any one of those six, considering that he fell off the 10-horse chariot and was still declared the winner (5). On the other hand, he actually competed in all six and was willing to put himself in a vulnerable position by acting and playing the lyre in public (5), in contrast to Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedonia, who is recorded as being a triple winner, including a horse racing event and two chariot races, from 356 BC to 348 BC, by simply entering his horses and not being present (4).
TWO OTHER PANHELLENIC GAMES SUPERSTARS
Sostratus of Sikyon found a unique technique that surprised his opponents in the no-hold-barred pankration. He could break fingertips, forcing submission (17). His reward was 17 wins: three at the Olympic Games (364 BC, 360 BC and 356 BC), twelve at the Isthmian and Nemean Games and two at the Phythian Games.
The remarkable career (5,15) of Phayllos of Kroton (a Greek colony in southern Italy) has spawned a number of studies. Phayllos won the pentathlon twice and the stadion once at the Phythian Games of 482 BC and 478 BC. The logical step for Phayllos would have been to compete in the 480 BC Olympic Games. He had quite another activity in mind. He outfitted and commanded a battleship at the Battle of Salamis, helping the Greeks defeated the Persians. About 150 years later, Alexander the Great sent a shipment of captured goods to Kroton to honor Phayllos’ loyalty. In spite of investigations, it is not known whether his financial ability to outfit a battle ship came from his athletic career or from some other financial activity or inheritance.
An epigram contains one of the very few (and perhaps the only) documented measurements of athletic performances in Ancient Greece. An epigram states that Phayllos threw the discus 95 feet and long jumped 55 feet (2). The discus throw and long jump are two of the five pentathlon skills. That long jump distance raised two questions. First, since the long jumpers carried halteres, 1.5 to 2 km weights, in each hand, how could carrying weights improve distance? The most engaging question was how could anyone jump 55 feet? Two sets of researchers set out to answer the first question (3,6). They could not find a way to improve a running long jump by carrying weights. However, they found a technique whereby a standing long jumper could gain 5%, carrying 2 kg weights. The jumper begins by standing with feet together, leaning forward, counterbalanced by holding the weights behind. The athlete then jumps and thrusts the weights forward and upward. The athlete’s center of gravity is a bit farther forward with the weights than without. The jumper then folds forward, drawing the legs under the weights and landing with the same posture as is shown on surviving urn paintings.
As to the question of jumping 55 feet (16.3 m), KU Leuven adopted the hypothesis (9) that, since the event was called the pentathlon, perhaps a jumper employed five successive standing long jumps, each starting with the feet together and employing the weight thrusting techniques from the researchers discussed above. After eight weeks of training, the KU Leuven jumpers (9) achieved a distance of 50 feet (15 m).
Both Sostratus and Phayllos became superstars of Ancient Greece via well thought out and well learned techniques. In Phayllos’ case, modern researchers were able to reproduce his standing long jump techniques. Phayllos shows us that a person who gains public attention as an athlete can make significant contributions in other areas as well.
The small number of events contested during each of the Ancient Olympics over 1000 years, 3.5, and the rather few events contested more than once, 22, made winning once very difficult and winning repetitively remarkable. Eight remarkable competitors were Olympic champions from six to 12 times. Having won twice, the reputation of an athlete and the obvious motivation of others to defeat that person, meant that the superstars had to achieve great mental toughness. They used the nutritional and training methods of their era to maintain a high-performance level over as many as nine and twelve Olympics. The found and maintained unique techniques such as a standing long jump carrying weights without modern motion-capture capabilities. Along with obvious athletic skills, some showed social awareness. A woman, Kyniska of Sparta, made a great stride for women by becoming a double champion. Nero acted and played the lyre in public, showing a personal vulnerability and an affinity with common people. Phayllos supported his nation by outfitting and commanding a battleship at the naval Battle of Salamis, when he would have made personal fortune competing in the 480 BC Olympics.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
With our much-more advanced technology compared to Ancient Greece, today’s athletes can more easily acquire skills in the areas mentioned above and can compete at a high level over several more years of demanding competition. Athletes need not take part in sport alone, but may also use their sports platforms to take part in socially-relevant endeavors outside of sport.
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