Sports played a fundamental role in ancient Greek society. From running to wrestling and jumping, many were the disciplines that originated from this ancient population.
Not by chance, the most important sports competition nowadays, the Olympic Games, was invented here. The first edition of the Olympics was held in 776 BC in the city of Olympia.
This event was extremely important for Greek society to the point that all the city-states across the Greek territories would stop all wars and battles during this period to make sure these competitions could be held.
But which sports took place during the Olympics? And which other games and disciplines were often practiced back then? Here is a list of the ten most popular games and sports in ancient Greece.
Pankration refers to an ancient martial art consisting of a mix between wrestling and boxing. This sport was first introduced in the 33rd edition of the Olympics in 648 BC, but evidence suggests that it was invented in the 2nd millennium BC.
The term pankration derives from pan, meaning ‘all’, and kratos, which can be translated as ‘strength’, ‘might’, or ‘power’. Pankration, therefore, means ‘all of the might’.
Together with wrestling and boxing, this sport was part of the heavy events category at the Olympics and was known for having just a limited number of rules.
Biting and gouging someone in the eye and mouth with your fingers was one of the few banned practices. Fighters were allowed to kick someone in their stomach and even genitals. Matches would either end when one of the two athletes admitted his defeat by raising his index finger or with death.
Arrhichion of Phigalia became one of the most famous fighters of this discipline as he managed to win just a few seconds before dying. According to the story, Arrhichion was locked in a tight chokehold and had to break his opponent’s ankle to escape. However, as his competitor raised his index finger as a sign of defeat, Arrhichion died. Despite this, he was honored as the winner of the fight.
The pentathlon was one of the official competitions in the Olympics. It consisted of five different disciplines. The word pentathlon derives from the terms pente, meaning five, and athlon, competition.
Athletes competing in this game would start by running a 183-meter race to then compete in the long jump, discus throw, and javelin throw. The two final winners would then fight against each other in a wrestling match.
People often consider athletes competing in the pentathlon as inferior compared to the specialized ones. However, they were superior in their overall development and were the most balanced of all the participants.
Running played a fundamental role in ancient Greece. This was in fact the oldest sport in the Olympics and there were different categories within this discipline ranging from sprinting to long races.
The most iconic was the stadium in which athletes would run for 180 meters.
Apart from this, there was another sprint discipline called diaulos, the length of two stadia (plural for stadion). Another popular version of the diaulos was the race in armor. During this event, runners would sprint for the length of a diaulos while wearing a helmet, greaves on their legs, and a shield in their hands.
But there were also longer races. For instance, the dolichos, whose length varied from 1260 meters to 4320 meters. Runners competed naked and ran on sand.
Running games were also held outside of the Olympics. One of the most popular was the torch race, an ancient version of the modern-day relay race.
During this game, several athletes would play for the same team passing each other a lit torch while running. Torch races were usually held during religious celebrations such as the Panathenaic Games.
We also have to mention the famous Marathon. The first man to run a marathon was a soldier known as Philippides.
According to the story, in 490 BC, the Greeks won an important battle against the Persians, and Philippides was given the order to run from Marathon to Athens to bring the positive news. The distance was roughly 42 km, but nonetheless, the messenger managed to bring the news to the Athenians and then died on the spot due to the extreme effort.
4. Javelin throwing
Another popular sport, still held at the Olympics nowadays, was javelin throwing.
Even though this is no longer the norm, in Ancient Greek times athletes would loop a leather strap around the javelin’s center of gravity. They would then latch two fingers into the loop and throw the javelin as far as possible.
This was obviously the most militaristic event as, in case you didn’t know, javelins are light spears designed to be thrown during battles as a ranged weapon. They were made of wood, measured the height of a man, and featured a pointy end.
Despite the ones used at the Olympics did not have an iron or bronze point, the similarity with the spears used in combat was evident.
5. Chariot Races
Chariot races may seem a pretty safe sport, especially if compared to wrestling and boxing, but this was not always the case. Let us explain why.
Athletes would compete on fragile two-wheel vehicles that could easily break during a collision with drastic consequences for the drivers. In fact, many were the ones who died while competing in this sport.
Two, four, or six horses usually pulled the chariots, and a race often consisted of six participants. Each driver had to complete seven laps around the circus, and the first one to finish was declared the winner.
The Iliad, an epic poem written by Homer, contains the first written record of this discipline. Homer, in fact, mentions a chariot race during the funerals of Patroclus, the alleged lover of Achilles.
Boxing, which can be translated as ‘fighting with the fists’, became an Olympics sport in 688 BC.
Onomastus of Smyrna was the first Olympic winner in this discipline, even though boxing was already popular before being introduced in this event. In fact, some studies suggest that this sport was already practiced in the bronze age, during the Minoan and Mycenean periods.
Several legends have been written regarding the origins of this sport. One of the most peculiar has Theseus as a protagonist. This hero invented an early version of boxing in which fighters were supposed to sit down and keep punching each other until one of them brutally died. Eventually, people started to practice this sport standing up, and this is how boxing was born.
In the beginning, this sport had a very limited number of rules. For instance, breaks and weight categories did not exist. Points were also added later on, and a fight would end only when one of the two participants declared his defeat. Not surprisingly, people would sometimes die when practicing this sport.
7. Horse races
Similar to the chariot races, horse races were organized all over the Ancient Greek territories. The first of these events was held in the city of Olympia in 648 BC.
Athletes competing in this discipline needed to have incredible balance and a good grip. In fact, neither saddle nor stirrups were used at the time. Horses ran for a total of 1.2 km, and the athletes had to make sure not to fall as this meant risking their lives.
According to the Greek geographer Pausanias, between 496 and 444 BC, a unique kind of horse race became more and more popular. Known as Kalpe, we now only have limited information about this competition. According to Pausanias, the difference between this and a regular horse race stood in the fact that during the last round, the rider would jump off his mare and run next to her.
8. Long jump
Long jump was never practiced as an individual sport but only as one of the five disciplines of the Pentathlon.
This sport used to be quite different from our modern long jump. People would use weights consisting of large stones weighing from 1.5 to 2 kg in each hand to jump further and land more steadily. The weight differed in size based on the height of the athletes and could have several shapes ranging from semi-circles to rectangles and ellipses.
The technique used at the time was quite intricate. Athletes would first achieve momentum through a short run-up while swinging their weights back and forth. Once they were ready to take off, jumpers would thrust the weights back and then stretch their arms in front of them, close to their feet.
But this is not all. When the athletes reached the apex of their jump, they would fling their arms backward again, and before reaching the sand, they would discard the weights. This would allow them to maintain the momentum accumulated during the jump.
Apart from boxing and pankration, another popular fighting sport in Ancient Greece was wrestling. At the time, there were two main categories: upright combat wrestling and ‘rolling’ or ‘ground’ wrestling.
The former took place in a sandy pit. The game consisted in throwing the opponent to the ground. The first wrestler who managed to throw the other fighter on the floor three times was proclaimed the official winner.
Rolling wrestling was quite different. Fighters would win when their opponent was so exhausted he could no longer continue or when he signaled defeat by raising his hand with one or two extended fingers.
Wrestling was a brutal sport and broken bones were the norm. In fact, athletes would often break each other’s fingers or even arms to escape a deadly hold. One wrestler, in particular, known as Leontiskos of Messene, became famous because of this practice which helped him win the Olympics twice.
But the most famous wrestler in Ancient Greek history was, without a doubt, Milon of Croton. Several stories have been written about this legendary fighter. He was known for carrying live bulls on his shoulders and saving Pythagoras’ life during an earthquake. According to the story, when a violent earthquake interrupted one of Pytagoras’ classes, Milon of Croton promptly held the collapsed roof, allowing everybody to escape.
10. Discus throwing
Discus throwing was present at the very first edition of the Olympics in 776 BC. For this reason, we now think this discipline was probably practiced long before this date.
Together with jump and javelin throw, this was one of the five disciplines in the pentathlon. Throughout history, the discus was manufactured using different materials. Some of these included stone, lead, iron, and bronze.
Unlike long jumping, not much has changed throughout time in the technique used by athletes to throw their discus. This means that if you look at this sport at the modern Olympic Games, you will get a pretty good idea of the technique used by athletes to throw their discus back then.
Discus throw was mentioned in the Iliad and was immortalized by Myron in the Discobolus, one of the most famous statues of Ancient Greece.
Thanks to the ancient Greek population the Olympic Games are still celebrated to this day and every four years athletes from all over the world get to meet and compete against each other. Just like back then, winners receive eternal fame and esteem and are treated like celebrities for the rest of their lives.
But there’s a deeper reason why the Olympic Games were and still are so important. In fact, they helped give this ancient population its own sense of identity.
By participating in these events, people from all over the Greek territories would get to meet each other, realizing they were not that different after all.
Just like back then, nowadays the Olympic Games help us see the similarities between different cultures and put aside our differences to instead focus on what unites us.
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