National Geographic : 1944 Mar
To Greeks We Owe Our Love of Athletics FROM the earliest times of which we have any record the Greeks were passionately fond of athletic games. To them we owe a large measure of our interest in track and gymnastic sports. In the Homeric Age we hear of jumping, discus throwing, running, wrestling, and boxing. Both high and distance jumping were popular, although only the latter was included in the Olympic contests. We are told that it was customary to use weights, called halteres, to aid the jumper in getting greater momentum for his leap; some of these objects made of stone or bronze have been found, and many representations of them may be seen on Greek vase paintings. Probably the weights were used also to exercise the hands and arms just as dumbbells are used today. The foot races were of varying lengths, the short straight away being one stadion, or about 600 feet. In several of the old stadia there are still rows of stone blocks at either end, with grooves cut in them to give the sprinters' feet a firm hold for the take-off. There are also sometimes holes for posts which may have held ropes to divide the running lanes. There was, as well, 'a distance race, which at Olympia was about three miles. Racing in full armor was also popular. Throwing the discus and the javelin formed part of the standard pentathlon contest. Javelins were equipped with a thong wound around the shaft. This gave the missile a rotary motion. Two types of wrestling were in favor. In one the object was to throw the opponent so that his shoulder touched the ground, while the adversary remained on his feet. The other was more rough andtumble, and the match continued until one wrestler declaredhimself beaten. Boxing, considered a separate sport, was practiced more generally by the athlete who wished towin special prizes in the games. In earlier times skill counted more than brute force, and the hands werebound for protection, with soft leather thongs only. These later gave way tohard oxhide wrappings, often weightedwith lead. In Hellenistic and Roman times itwas considered sport to watch two powerful boxers maul each other. This form of the sport would have been considered far too brutal for the high period of Greekcivilization. Training diet for contestants inthe games consisted at first of fresh cheese, driedfigs, and wheaten porridge. Sweets were forbidden and winewas used very sparingly. Inlater times there was a changeindiet tobeef, pork, and kid. The youth in the foreground ofthe picture isusing a strigil to scrape off the sweat and dust which have mingled with the olive oil rubbedonhis body before the contest. By no ordinary bath could such acoating beremoved. It had to be scraped off before the athlete went totheshower with which all the palaistrai were provided. Great distinction attended anathletic victor. He might set up a statue of himself(athis own orhis friends' ex pense) in the sacred precinct ofOlympia. At Athens after the time ofSolon, anOlympic victor re ceived a reward of 500 drachmai, and had the privilege of eating at the public expense inthe Prytaneum. He might also be accorded a front-row seat ofhonor atthe theater.