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Ancient Olympic Events

The legacy of the ancient events is reflected in the program of the modern Games. Some Olympic competitions, such as boxing and wrestling, are just as common today as they were in antiquity. Other sports—such as the pentathlon, discus throw, javelin throw, and long jump—are borrowed directly, but adapted for modern times.

Use the links at right to jump to a particular section. Within each section, the date and number of the Olympiad when the event was introduced follows the heading in parentheses.

Five-Day Program
For many years, the Olympics were a one-day festival. This was certainly sufficient during the early years; indeed, for the first 13 Olympiads, the stadion (200-meter sprint) was the only event. As more events were added, the number of days grew, until from the fifth century on, the five-day schedule was standard.

Day One—No competitions took place on the first day. After the opening ceremony, which included the taking of oaths by the athletes and judges, the competitors were registered and schedules were drawn up. Sacrifices were presented to the gods and the opening of the Games were celebrated.

Day Two—On the second day there were special events for the boys. This usually included boxing and pankration wrestling. The day ended with celebrations for the young participants.

Day Three—This impressive day began with the "hecatombe," a sacrifice of 100 oxen to Zeus by the Eleans (Elis controlled Olympia and the Games). Next, the primary events began, starting with chariot races and horse races in the Hippodrome. Then came the pentathlon, a combination of five events (sprint, long jump, discus, javelin, and wrestling), in the stadium.

Day Four—The fourth day opened with the foot races: the stadion (200 meters), the diaulos (400 meters), and the dolichos (2,000 meters). This was followed by wresting, boxing, and pankration wrestling. The final event of each Olympics was a spectacle called the hoplitodromia, a 200-meter sprint in helmet, greaves (calf armor), and shield.

Day Five—The final day was one long closing ceremony. The gods were venerated with sacrifices and ceremonies. The victors were crowned with olive wreaths at the elaborate awards ceremony, followed by feasts were held in their honor.

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Athletes of old did not require a elaborate venue—until the first stadium was established around 560 BC they simply used a flat, rectangular area of ground. "Stadium I" was nothing more than a marked area of track and slight slope for spectators. Stadium II, built at the end of the 6th century BC, was slightly improved. The final version, built around 350 BC (which can be visited today at the ruins of Olympia), was larger, built further away from the sanctuary, and had a capacity of 45,000. There were embankments on all sides for the spectators, a small dais for the judges, a grand entrance tunnel from the sanctuary, and it was ringed by an aqueduct that delivered water to the spectators.

The track of the stadium was a rectangular area, 212 meters long. The ground was a mixture of earth and sand. The start and finish lines were marked by two trenches made of stone and equipped with grooves to form a kind of starting block. One amazing feature of these ancient stadiums is the absence of bends at the corners to accommodate the turns. It is not know how this problem was handled, though a turning post of some kind must surely have played a part.

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Track Events
STADION (1st Olympiad; 776 BC)—The "stadion" was a simple sprint from one end of the stadium to the other, a distance of 600 feet (192.27 meters). This premiere competition of the ancient Olympics was the only event for the first thirteen Olympiads and was never omitted from the program in a millennium. In addition, the stadion became part of the pentathlon when it was introduced in 708 BC.

DIAULOS (14th Olympiad; 724 BC)—At 1,200 feet (384.54 meters), the "diaulos" was double the length of the stadion. This second-oldest event was run in a straight line from one end of the stadium to the other and back, rather than in an elliptical lap, as we do today.

DOLICHOS (15th Olympiad; 720 BC)—Although the exact distance that "dolichos" runner had to traverse is not clear, it is known that this was a lengthy race, requiring great endurance. It is possible that the length was 24 stadia, or 14, 400 feet (4,615 meters).

HOPLITODROMOS (65th Olympiad; 520 BC)—This theatrical event was the grand finale of each Olympiad. Participants raced the length of a diaulos (1,200 feet / 384.54 meters) with helmet, greaves (lower-leg armor), and a round shield. This militaristic closing event was a reminder that the Olympic truce was almost over.

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(18th Olympiad; 708 BC)—The pentathlon consisted of five competitions. The 200-meter dash ( [stadion] ) and [wrestling] were events in their own right, but the remaining events (long jump, discus, and javelin) were only part of the pentathlon competition. Unfortunately, little is know about the order of competition, rules, or how a winner was determined. It is certain, however, that pentathletes (who were greatly admired in antiquity) must have possessed incredible endurance in order to compete in five events in one afternoon. Although it is not known who invented it or how it originated, we do know it was a very popular event.

The legacy of the pentathlon exists today in the modern version, which was first introduced at the 1912 Games in Stockholm. It was revived by special request of Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics. The modern pentathlon consists of horseback riding, pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, and running.

LONG JUMP—The most significant difference between the ancient long jump and its modern cousin is in the use of jumping weights called "halteres." These small weights held in each hand were swung forward with great force as the jump was launched to propel the jumper forward as much as possible. They would then be swung back and down just before landing. This technically challenging feat was often performed to the accompaniment of flute music, which helped the athlete to maintain the necessary rhythm and spilt-second timing. The jumps took place in a rectangular sand pit in the stadium, with a small take-off ramp on one side. It is unknown whether the long-jump of antiquity was a single, double, or even triple jump.

DISCUS—This curious sport lives on in the modern Games. The graceful poses of ancient throwers were almost the same as those of today, except that it is likely the ancient athlete made no more than a three-quarter turn, in contrast to the full spins that are standard technique today. Very little is known about the length of throws in those days, although any figure would have little meaning without knowing the weight of the discus that was thrown. Discuses, which were made of stone or metal, were often marked with inscriptions. The terms of the ancient Olympic truce were engraved on a discus and displayed in the Altis.

JAVELIN—This event is another example of the traditions that live on the Games of today. In ancient times, this was not a idle sport—warriors relied heavily on the javelin as an offensive weapon. The only real difference between the ancient and modern versions of this event is the use of the "anklye"—a leather thong used to fling the javelin. This strap, which was wound around the shaft and held by its free end, unwound as the spear was thrown, making the javelin spin and ensuring a steady flight.

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Combat Events
WRESTLING (18th Olympiad; 708 BC)—Matches were held in an area filled with sand. Once a match began, it continued without interval until one man had thrown his opponent three times (touching the ground with the back, shoulders, or hip constituted a fall). There were no divisions by weigh, and the bigger men tended to win. Contestants were allowed to trip, but not to bite, gouge, or punch. Over the years, the variety of holds and tricks grew in number and sophistication. Wrestling became the final event of the pentathlon when it was introduced in 708 BC.

BOXING (23rd Olympiad; 688 BC)—Although ancient boxing is similar to its modern counterpart, matches were not conducted in a roped-off ring and there were no breaks and no time limit. Victory was declared when one opponent was knocked out or conceded the contest. No wrestling or holding were allowed, but it was possible to hit a fallen opponent. Virtually all blows were directed to the head, while the body was left exposed. A series of hand straps evolved over the years, culminating in a relatively sophisticated glove. This hand-gear did not lessen the violence of this sport, and ancient boxers were very recognizable by their "cauliflower ears" and other facial disfigurements.

PANKRATION (33rd Olympiad; 648 BC)—This hugely popular event, which ancient poets were inspired to immortalize with numerous odes, is unlike any competition today. It was a conglomeration of elements from boxing, a form a wrestling known as "ground wrestling," and elements quite unique to itself. Judging by what was allowed—competitors could strike with the fist, an open hand, twist arms, even break fingers!—the pankration seems very violent, yet it was considered less dangerous than boxing. Much of the struggle took place on the ground, although several upright holds were popular. In contrast to the sand-filled wrestling square, the pankration was conducted in an area where the ground was watered and somewhat muddy.

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All equestrian events took place in the spectacular hippodrome. Very little is known about the ancient hippodrome of Olympia because it was destroyed by natural disasters and no other Greek hippodrome has left any informative remains. From what we can glean from a meager array of literary sources, it seems that, like the stadium, it was ringed by embankments to accommodate the standing spectators. Its track has been estimated at 600 meters (slightly more than one-third mile) with a width around 200 meters. The hippodrome was divided down the center by a wall, finished on each end by a pillar—one was a starting line and the other a turning post. This made a total circuit of about 1,200 meters.

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Equestrian Events
The equestrian events were the province of the elite—only wealthy aristocrats could afford to equip and maintain a chariot and horses, not to mention the cost of trainers and the charioteer or jockey. It was the owner who received the victory wreath, not the actual athlete. Thus, it was possible to "buy" a victory and a place in history. This is also why winners included children, women, and cities. These races seem, amazingly enough, diametrically opposed to the athletic ideals that the Games were supposed to embody. It is not surprising then that this event has no legacy in the modern Olympics, which were engineered by Coubertin to promote the legacy of the ancient Pelops, Hercules, and King Iphitos [athletic ideal] .

The equestrian events also appealed to the less-than-idealistic instincts of the spectators—much like "shock TV" today, the enormous fascination with these events was predicated by their violent nature. The races were quite dangerous and sometimes fatal. Collisions and "horse-wrecks" were common, especially near the critical turning post. The length of the various equestrian races were grueling distances.

CHARIOT RACES—The four horses of the "tethrippon" (introduced at the 25th Olympiad; 680 BC) had to run twelve circuits around the racecourse, or about 14 kilometers. The "synoris" (93rd Olympiad; 408 BC) was pulled by two horses approximately half the distance of the tethrippon. These two events were staged for colts and for adult horses. Charioteers were usually paid servants. In victory, they would receive the red woolen bands (which were awarded immediately), but the olive wreath crown was bestowed on the owner, as well as other prizes such as a statue in the Altis and being named in the official list of Olympic victors.

HORSE RACES—The regular horse race (introduced at the 33 Olympiad; 648 BC) was a little under 1,200 meters (six stadia). This same race was later introduced for colts (131st Olympiad; 256 BC) and for mares (71st Olympiad; 496 BC). Ancient races differed from modern competitions in that horseshoes and saddles were not used, although sometimes stirrups and a whip were employed.

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