Competitive sports and games were a vital element in the many festivals that took place in ancient Greece. From the Olympic Games at Olympia to honor Zeus, to the Pythian Games at Delphi to honor Apollo, games were an opportunity for soldiers to show their skill and athletic prowess, as well as gain fortune and acclaim for their feats. Many contemporary sports find their roots in these ancient games.
Chariot races and horse and rider races were regular events during the most popular games of ancient Greece. The chariots were converted war chariots with an open back and a single axle for two wheels. Foot braces were built into the platforms for the riders and categories included two-horse or four-horse races. Chariots would race 12 laps around the hippodrome, making sharp and dangerous turns at designated posts. Horse and rider events involved a single horse and rider. The jockeys would race bareback competing in a single lap around the arena.
The pentathlon consisted of five events: discus, javelin, long jump, sprinting and wrestling. The discus was made from either iron, bronze, stone or lead and the weight varied according to the adult or youth divisions competing. Javelins emulated a spear used as a weapon with an attached finger loop that allowed for better leverage for throwing in competition. The long jump was performed with weights in each hand used to propel the jumper forward and quickly dropped behind them as they landed to help gain more distance as they hit the ground. Modern Pentathlon explains that the sprint portion of the event consisted of one “stade” – 192 meters – equivalent to one length of the stadium. The final event of wrestling was won when an athlete would throw their opponent to the ground three times on either their hip, back or shoulders.
In addition to the single stade sprint race in the pentathlon, foot races were their own event during most games. Distances varied from shorter one- and two-stade races to longer runs as much as seven or 24-stade in length. The hoplitodromos was a two-stade race where the participants sprinted in full armor including a helmet and carrying a shield. According to the British Museum, 25 identical shields were set aside for the race and stored in the Temple of Zeus to ensure no competitor could cheat by running with a lighter shield.
Boxing, wrestling and pankration were the three contact sports in most Greek games. Boxing was more primitive than the competition known today. Fighters would wrap their hands in leather straps and the fight would continue on until one fighter yielded in defeat or was knocked out. Individual wrestling events were won as they were in the pentathlon: by taking down your opponent three times on the hip, back or shoulders. The International Federation of Pankration states that this ancient event can be seen as the precursor to modern-day mixed martial arts. Pankration was a mixture of boxing and wrestling, but kicks, chokes and submission holds were allowed as well. Matches would continue until one of the fighters admitted defeat.
Jullie Chung writes regularly for various websites. She is a nationally certified fitness trainer and performance enhancement specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and trains regularly in yoga, flatwater kayaking, boxing and mixed martial arts. An avid outdoor fan, she regularly hikes, climbs and trail runs.