Since the rules
failed to limit the number of chariots one might enter, this was one event in
which rich people had the edge. A notorious chariot victor was Alcibiades, the
pupil of Socrates who later became the stormy petrel of the Peloponnesian War.
He once sought public office on the grounds of having brought a high honor to
Athens: his chariots had placed first, second and fourth at Olympia. But his
peers decided, to his chagrin, that this was no proof of leadership and left
him to find other ways of advancing his career.
After the chariot
race, flat races filled out the second morning at Olympia. At one time the
hippodrome also witnessed trotting races and even mule-cart races, but these
were discontinued within a century. Pindar, the greatest poet connected with
Olympia, must have found the mule-cart event especially galling. He earned his
living by composing odes to Olympic victors, and just how does one immortalize
a mule driver? Pindar tried:
O Thou who
delightest in all high deeds,
Accept these garlands Olympian
For the mule cart and the tireless hoofs....
hippodrome stood a statue of a mare, in bronze, riderless and alone. The
inscription named her "Aura, of Corinth." and declared her personally
an Olympic champion. It seems that Aura's jockey fell off at the starting gate.
She trotted swiftly on without him. Out distanced the entire field, sprinted
down the homestretch, crossed the finish line all by herself and stopped,
proudly swishing her tail. The judges not only confirmed Aura's triumph but
also decreed special honors for her.
In the reign of
the Pharaoh Psammetichus, Elis sent an embassy requesting Egypt's sages to
suggest improvements for the Olympic Games. Like many civilized people before
and since, strangely enough, the Egyptians felt that competitive athletics were
rather beneath the dignity of a gentleman. The honor and prestige of Elis would
be best served, they counseled, if the state were to confine its role in the
Games to umpiring only. After carefully considering this advice, the citizens
rejected it. They had proved themselves fair umpires even when their own sons
were involved. So they manfully refused to bar future generations of Eleans
from the strains and joys of competition. This decision, so alien to Egyptian
thinking, nicely illustrates the Hellenic spirit of committal, strife and
It turned out
especially well for a boy named Hysmon, who was raised within strolling
distance of Olympia. Hysmon had already resolved to grow up to be an Olympic
champion when some crippling illness similar to polio seized him. Bedridden for
years, he persisted in his seemingly impossible plan. By sheer grit, exercise
and the grace of his gods, he slowly climbed from crippledom to excellence.
Hysmon became the most renowned pentathlon champion in history. The pentathlon,
of course, was a five-sport event, ancestor to our own still more punishing
decathlon. Comprising wrestling, discus, javelin, footrace and broad jump, it
called for the best-rounded development and skill of any classic contest.
The afternoon of
the second day at Olympia was taken up with Hysmon's specialty. This event
presents certain mysteries, especially regarding some of the sports that were
peculiar to it: discus, javelin and broad jump. How did the discus come to be,
for example, and why did it crop up in pagan tales of accidental deaths?
Possibly those two questions have a single answer: the discus may have begun as
a Stone Age weapon, which sport preserved into the historic period. As for the
javelin, it remained a weapon throughout classical times. Greek art shows many
huntsmen and warriors with pairs of light javelins in hand. Roman soldiers used
them, too. For the arena the Greeks equipped their javelins with a 12-to
18-inch thong that was wrapped around the shaft near the center of gravity. In
following through on one's throw, the forefinger remained in the loop of the
thong until the last moment. This gave considerable added leverage, besides
imparting a steadying spin to the javelin as the thong unwound. Philostratus,
the Lemnian Sophist, observed that long forefingers made for long throws. But
it was also claimed that outside the arena, in situations where aim outweighed
distance, the thong device proved ineffective.
at Olympia represented him with "jumping weights" in his hands. These
weights were only one oddity of ancient broad jumping. The use of flute music
was another, and the fabulous Olympic jumping record was a third. The weights
resembled medium-heavy dumbbells, except for their elliptical doughnut shapes.
The jumpers used to swing them back on the approach and sharply forward on the
takeoff. They did add distance: up to 10 feet, according to modern English
experimenters. Equally important, since ancient regulations called for a clean
two-point landing, was the fact that the outstretched weights helped the jumper
to maintain balance at the difficult moment when his heels hit the ground.
As to the flute,
it is anybody's guess why this instrument should have been brought in to
accompany the broad jump. But we know, particularly from the evidence of vase
paintings, that it was. Plutarch remarks that in the city of Argos the flute
was used to accompany wrestling matches as well. Might not rhythm be the clue?
In classic wrestling one makes a convulsive effort to throw one's opponent
through the air. In jumping one makes a similar effort against oneself, as it
were. One hurls one's own body. The effort must come at the right moment;
rhythm of approach is the essential secret of both sports, and the flute might
help establish the rhythm.
broad-jump record comes from a line in the Greek Anthology—a collection of
brief poems that covers much the same period as the ancient Olympics
themselves. A poet in the Anthology credits the jumper Phayllus with a
fantastic 55 feet, or twice the present record of 27 feet 4� inches. How could
such a boast have been swallowed down the years? It has been suggested, as one
answer, that springboards were allowed. If so, Phayllus' fabulous flight turns
credible. Besides, the report that he broke a leg in the process nicely fits
the springboard theory. Yet one can easily dismiss the whole as fable. We have
no more actual evidence for Phayllus' record than we do for an obvious exercise
in poetic license—also in the Greek Anthology—to the effect that the wrestler
Milo once carried a 4-year-old bull all the way around the arena at Olympia,
and ate it the same day!