5/24/13 - the olympics -- sports in ancient times

In today's selection -- the following selections, taken from ancient accounts (noted in italics), give a flavor for sports contests during the classical Greek era:

"There were far fewer events in the ancient Olympics than there are now and many more states from which competitors might be drawn than there are countries competing in the modern Games. ...

"On the road to Olympia, before it crosses the river Alpheus, there is a mountain with high and sheer cliffs, called Typaeum. There is a law that any woman caught either at the Olympic Games or even across the Alpheus on the days when women are excluded should be pushed off these cliffs. They say that no woman has ever been caught, with the single exception of Callipateira. (Some people say her name was Pherenice.) Since her husband was dead, she dressed herself like a trainer and took her son to Olympia to compete. Her son was victorious, and her clothes fell off as she jumped the fence of the trainers' pen to congratulate him. She was released unpunished, out of respect for her father, her brothers, and her son, all of whom were Olympic victors. A law was passed, however, that in the future trainers were to come naked to the Games (Pausanias Guide to Greece 5.6).

"I do not absolve trainers from blame in bribery scandals. They come to training sessions with plenty of money, which they lend to the athletes at a higher rate of interest than is paid even by merchants who invest in risky overseas trade. They do not care about the reputation of the athletes; they give them advice about buying and selling victory, while keeping a sharp eye on their own profits (Philostratus The Gymnast 45).

"The least successful athletes, those who have never won any victories, suddenly call themselves trainers and start shouting in harsh and barbarous tones, just like pigs (Galen Thrasybulus 5.894).

"In early times, it was the custom for athletes to compete with their clothing tucked up, but Coroebus ran naked when he won the short footrace at Olympia [in 720 B.C.]. I think he deliberately allowed his belt to fall off, realizing that a naked man runs more easily than does a man with his clothing tucked up (Pausanias Guide to Greece 1.44).

Runners (ca. 500 BC)

"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 means literally 'dog leash.' ...

"Evening was approaching when Creugas of Epidamnus and Damoxenus of Syracuse were boxing at the Nemean Games, so they agreed that each should allow the other to inflict one free punch. Boxers at that time were still wearing soft gloves that left the fingers uncovered. Creugas punched Damoxenus on the head. Then Damoxenus told Creugas to raise his arm. As soon as he did so, Damoxenus struck him with straight fingers under the ribcage. The sharpness of his nails and the force of the blow were such that he drove his hand right into Creugas's body. He grabbed his intestines and tore them as he pulled them out (Pausanias Guide to Greece 8.40). Damoxenus was adjudged to be cheating, because the blow from each finger was regarded as a separate punch, and a boxer was in any case only allowed to strike his opponent on the head, not on the body, so Creugas was posthumously declared victor.

"Eurydamas of Cyrene won the boxing event. He had his teeth knocked out, but he swallowed them to prevent his opponent from realizing what had happened (Aelian Miscellaneous History 10.19). ...

"There are countless things wrong with Greece, but nothing so bad as athletes .... When they're young, they strut around as shining ornaments for their city, but when bitter old age befalls them, they're like threadbare cloaks with holes. I blame the Greeks for their custom of coming together to watch athletes, honoring useless pastimes as an excuse for feasting. For who has ever defended his country by winning a crown for wrestling well, or running fast, or throwing a discus, or punching someone on the jaw? (Euripides frg. 282). Aulus Gellius reports, however, that Euripides competed as a boxer at the Isthmian and Nemean Games and was crowned as victor (Attic Nights 15.20).


J.C. McKeown


A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2013 by Oxford University Press


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