How Good Were the Ancient Greek Athletes Part 1

About the ancient Greek athletes and how they stack up against to today's modern sports heroes, size of the athletes and how the events were staged.



Hercules is said to have established the stadium at Olympia after his military defeat of King Augeas in 1222 B.C. Evidently, however, it was not until 776 B.C. that regular, quadrennial games started being held at Olympia in southern Greece. The length of the stadium was determined by Hercules on the basis of his foot-length (which evidently included the sandal). The length of the stadium comprised 600 of the hero's foot-lengths. This made the length 192.25 meters, or 630.74 ft. From this the mathematician Pythagoras calculated just how much taller Hercules must have been than the presumably ordinary-sized person who laid out the stadium in Athens by a similar procedure. Since Hercules was "four cubits" in height (an Olympian cubit = 18.24 in.), or about 6 ft. 1 in., an average-sized Greek was thus determined as being 5 ft. 7.3 in. in height. Other (anthropological) evidence indicates that the latter height could well have been that of an all-around Greek athlete, and accordingly an inch or two above that of the average-sized Greek adult male of those times. Today, in contrast, an average-sized competitor in amateur track and field events stands 5 ft. 111/4 in. The weight of the typical Greek athlete was probably not over 155 lb., whereas today's athlete averages about 185 lb. These respective heights and weights should be kept in mind in any comparison of the probable capabilities of ancient Greek athletes with the known records of modern ones.


The games at Olympia were held in August, at the time of the full moon after the summer solstice, when athletes could sleep outdoors without fear of rain or chill. The opening ceremonies of the games started before daybreak on the morning of the tenth day of the moon. The first day was devoted to footraces. The second day was given mostly to field events: jumping, throwing the discus and javelin, and wrestling. The third day saw boxers in action, along with footraces in which the runners wore helmets and carried shields. The fourth day was given over to the contests for boys (i.e., youths under 17 years of age). And the fifth and final day saw thrilling four-horse chariot races. Three of the five days of the festival were also consecrated as follows: the first day, a sacrifice (as of a pig, a goat, or an ox); the third day, the full moon; and the fifth day, feasting.

To compare Greek athletes with modern ones, it should be sufficient to consider the five events of the Greek pentathlon: running, jumping, throwing the discus, throwing the javelin, and wrestling.

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