The third morning
at Olympia began with a long procession to the altar of Zeus, followed by
ritual sacrifice of a whole herd of oxen. The gods received the smoke of this
feast, the aroma wafting upward to them from burning fat and bones. The meat
itself, however, was saved for the hungry athletes and for victory banquets. In
the afternoon, boys' events took place: footracing, wrestling and boxing. It
sometimes happened that fathers and sons both won championships at the same
Olympics, but only Diagoras of Rhodes and his sons are known to have scored a
triple win. In 465 B.C., Diagoras took the boxing crown, while his eldest son
won in the pankration and his younger son vanquished all comers in the boys'
boxing. When the children carried their father around the arena on their
shoulders many people wept. Flowers pelted down upon the trio. At the exit some
spoilsport elbowed close to Diagoras and rasped: "You'll never get any
closer to heaven than this. Why not die?" As it happened, Diagoras had a
lot to live for still. His sons won again in later Olympics, and his grandsons
carried on the family tradition of triumph. But by far the most intriguing of
all was the way his favorite daughter earned her own unique and thoroughly
feminine success at Olympia.
her name, and her exploit was something unheard of, never to be repeated in the
entire history of the Games. It came about because her husband died young,
leaving their athletically brilliant son in her care. Sailing from Rhodes to
Olympia not long afterward, she entered the child in the boys' boxing. Girl
children may sometimes have been admitted to Olympia as spectators, but women
were solemnly and superstitiously kept away. Callipatira, however, clipped her
hair short, flattened her bosom as best she could, draped a manly robe about
herself and stepped boldly into the arena disguised as her son's trainer. With
her own eyes, she saw him beat every opponent. She saw him crowned with olive.
But in the excitement of the moment Callipatira jumped up to embrace her boy
and, as luck would have it, the hem of her robe caught under the bench where
she had been sitting. The garment ripped free: she stood exposed. The sight
created pandemonium in the crowd and consternation in the judges' box. One
might have supposed that, of all those men. not one had seen a woman before.
According to the rulebook, she would have to die.
Well, she had
fulfilled her husband's final wish. The boy had conquered. She was calm. With
bloodstained fists Callipatira's son gently returned the robe to her shoulders.
She stood straight amid the shouting, proud even at bay. Now each person
present began to sense her courage. The jeers slowly changed to shouts of
praise. Amid acclaim, Callipatira was allowed to go away free, in stately
fashion, honored as though a departing guest. But the judges decreed that in
the future all trainers, like the athletes themselves, must enter the arena in
The fourth day at
Olympia began, just before sunrise, with the so-called "long race" of
slightly under three miles. The contestants used to pray to Apollo, the sun
god, for what is more light-footed than the sun? The sun, Scripture says,
"delighteth as a strong man to run a race." Indeed, there was a
classical myth to the effect that Apollo himself once ran at Olympia. The sun
god barely defeated Hermes, god of messengers and thieves, on that primal
Greeks had water clocks and sand clocks for the hours, they seem not to have
known how to time brief intervals. There was no classical equivalent of the
stopwatch. Lacking precise records, we cannot tell how speedy the Greek runners
were. Their fabulous endurance, however, is attested. Herodotus tells how the
Athenian patriot Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta in two days. The
distance covered was about 150 miles, partly over high mountains. At the final
mountain pass, when he was in a condition of euphoria and incipient exhaustion,
Pheidippides had a vision of Pan, the goat-footed wilderness god. Pan, he
reported, expressed friendship for the people of Athens and asked to be
remembered in their prayers. Not long afterward, by way of honoring Pan's
request, the Athenians built a chapel for the god on the Acropolis. But the
immediate aim of Pheidippides' run, as everybody knows, had been to enlist the
help of Sparta against the invading Persians at Marathon. The Spartans
responded sluggishly; they reached Marathon after the battle. Pheidippides
himself, meanwhile, had run back again to fight. And it was he who brought the
news of glorious victory from Marathon to Athens, a final run of slightly over
20 miles. Gasping out a word at Athens' gates—"Rejoice!"—happy
Pheidippides fell dead.
Olympic marathon race honors his memory. The ancient Games included no event of
such a length, although the Greeks plainly enjoyed and excelled at
cross-country running. According to Eusebius (the antiquarian bishop of
Caesarea), an Argive champion who took the long-race crown at Olympia one
morning "announced his own victory at home the same night." If the
statement is to be taken at face value, he covered more than a hundred miles of
mountain trails—right across Arcadia to Argos—in a matter of 15 hours! But
perhaps the truth is different: he may have sent a homing pigeon instead.
Aelian tells us that the wrestler Taurosthenes, from the island of Aegina,
thought of that device, and others must have used it on occasion.
After the long
race came a dash of about 400 yards, or down the length of the stadium and
back. The race began at a line of limestone slabs incised with shallow parallel
grooves six or seven inches apart. Instead of starting off their hands, as
modern runners do, the contestants stood leaning slightly forward, with the
balls of their feet in the grooves. False starts were punished with a whipping,
administered on the spot. The tension must have been great, because, as the
Athenian hero Themistocles remarked, "It's better to be whipped than left
at the post."
numerous vase paintings of the subject, Greek running style was the same as
ours. However, the champions generally seem to have been less lean in classical
times than today. Being part-time warriors, the runners of Greece had reason to
develop and discipline their whole bodies—not just legs and lungs.
At Olympia the
400-yard dash was followed by a sprint the length of the stadium, or about 200
yards. Athletically, this was considered the high point of the whole festival.
Homer had reserved the adjective "swift-footed" for his greatest hero,
Achilles. The Greeks traditionally honored runners above all other athletes. In
fact, they even went so far as to name each Olympics for the fastest person
present—that is, for the winner of the climactic sprint. His name and fame
passed instantly, yet permanently, into history.
No wonder Greek
cities heaped special honors upon their swiftest heroes. And not honors only;
the practical rewards, too, could be great. Plato, in his Myth of Er, fancied
the soul of Atalanta choosing to enter the body of an athlete—for sweet
reward's sake. In the year 412 B.C. the champion sprinter Exaenetus was
welcomed home to his city with the equivalent of a ticker-tape parade. Three
hundred leading citizens greeted him outside the gates. Forming a triumphal
procession of flower-wreathed chariots, they escorted him along a winding way
through cheering throngs to city hall. There, in lieu of a vulgar cash
settlement, the mayor pronounced Exaenetus immune from taxation for the rest of
his natural life, a substantial gift, since individual taxes on people of
substance could amount to such considerable levies as one year's salary for the
crew of a warship.