With arms flailing and bare toes digging into the fine shifting sand of the track, they sprinted the length of the stadium. As in modern meets the victor qualified for the finals. The usual number of contestants being 16, there were four preliminaries whose winners then competed for the olive crown. The stade was followed by two longer races—the diaulos, covering 400 yards, and the dolichos, comprising 24 laps, or roughly 2 2/3 miles. Since the Greeks had no stop watches, the only clues to their performance derive from gossip and generalities—e.g., one sprinter was said to have outpaced a hare, another to have outrun a horse. Herodotus reported that Pheidippides, the famed hero of Marathon, once ran the 250 miles from Athens to Sparta in two days.
As the victorious runners left the stadium, each holding a palm frond, another group of athletes emerged from the mouth of the tunnel. They were far bigger men, powerfully muscled, with huge shoulders and massive thighs. They were the wrestlers, and as they anointed themselves with oil and then covered their skin with a light sprinkling of sand, the tension of the spectators rose. For the Greeks had cultivated wrestling since early antiquity—Herakles had been a wrestler—and they continued to regard it as the most scientific and most important of all Olympic events. Attendance at the palaestra, or wrestling school, was an integral part of every schoolboy's education; many battles had been won by the Greeks thanks to their wrestling skill. As opposed to later mutations, the classic technique of Olympic wrestling attached great importance to form as well as strength. Contestants grappled from an upright position with the aim of hurling the other man to the ground.
Next to Herakles, the most famous wrestler of ancient days was Milo of Croton, who won the Olympic crown six times. In his latter years, though fat and sluggish, he continued to overwhelm his opponents by sheer brute power and avoirdupois. Noted no less for his appetite than for his strength, he is said to have devoured an entire four-year-old bull in a single day at Olympia, washing it down with five quarts of wine.
The wrestlers were succeeded by boxers, also tough, brawny men who, as they marched in, tightened rawhide thongs that were bound around their fists and wrists. Greek boxing differed from the modern sport in several important respects. The leather gauntlets contained no padding; they were designed merely to protect the knuckles. There were no rounds. There were no rules against hitting a man when he was down. A bout continued until a fighter either lost consciousness or acknowledged defeat. Rough as the boxing was, it did not approach the violence that distinguished the fourth and final event on the third day of the Olympiad. This was the pankration (from pan, all, plus kratos, strength)—an all-out, rough-and-tumble brawl in which the opponents employed both boxing and wrestling tactics with no holds barred. Only biting and gouging were enjoined, though the tough Spartans allowed these too in their local games. The Greeks regarded the pankration as less dignified than wrestling, for it involved groveling in the mud—literally, for the combatants fought in pits of spaded earth that had been moistened with water. As in boxing the struggle continued until one or the other contestant surrendered—or died. In one Olympiad a famed pankratiast named Arrachion found himself trapped in a combination stranglehold and body scissors. To escape he twisted his antagonist's foot until it broke. In agony the other man lifted his hand to signal defeat. But in that moment Arrachion died of strangulation. He was nevertheless declared victor, and the olive wreath was placed upon his corpse.
On the fourth morning of the Olympiad, action shifted to the nearby hippodrome, where the horse and chariot races were held. These differed from the preceding events in that the jockeys and charioteers were paid professionals. In ancient Greece as today, horse racing was dominated by wealthy owners who could afford the expense of maintaining stables and breeding stock. They hired the best riders they could find, and when the race was over the stable owner, not the jockey or charioteer, received the victor's prize. The track at the hippodrome was 600 by 300 yards, and in the horse race the distance was one lap. The jockeys rode naked and bareback, without saddle or stirrups, and were required, on nearing the finish, to vault from their mounts in full gallop and cross the line on foot still holding the reins. Of all Olympic events, however, the chariot race was the most spectacular—and one of the most hazardous. For the chariots were drawn by four horses each, and 30 to 40 chariots might be entered in a single race. The course was nine miles long, requiring 12 full laps and 23 turns around the terminal pylons. Invariably there were collisions on the turns, yokes and axles became entangled, chariots overturned and drivers were dragged in the reins or trampled and crushed beneath the onrushing wheels. In one historic race 40 chariots started and only one—that of Arcesilaus of Cyrene—survived to cross the finish line.
In the afternoon the crowds returned to the stadium for the final events of the Olympiad—the pentathlon and the race in armor. Both contests reflected important aspects of the Greek character. The pentathlon, for example, was a test of all-round athletic ability in five fields: running, wrestling, the discus, the javelin and jumping with weights. As such it symbolized that harmonious union of talents which the Greeks especially admired and which Aristotle had in mind when he observed that pentathletes were superior to specialized athletes, however inferior to them in individual events. Similarly, the race in armor called for a combination of skills—of strength, speed and endurance. For the contestants had to run 400 yards wearing greaves (shin guards) and helmets and carrying shields three feet in diameter. The race was actually a military exercise, and it ended the Olympiad on a note of martial pageantry which epitomized the words of Socrates: "No citizen has any right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training: it is part of his profession as a citizen to keep himself in good condition, ready to serve his state at a moment's notice. The instinct of self-preservation demands it likewise: for how helpless is the state of the ill-trained youth in war or danger. Finally, what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable."
The interlocking ideals of strength and beauty lay at the very heart of the Olympic Games. It was from them that Greece derived both the security of its golden age and its undying cultural glory.