How Good Were the Ancient Greek Athletes Part 4

About the ancient Greek athletes and how they stack up against to today's modern sports heroes, a look at the discus and javelin competitions.



The word "tossing" is used here to indicate the movement used by the ancient Greeks, which was an underhanded throw rather than the body-whirling release used by today's discus throwers. In consequence of this radical difference in style or technique, no direct comparison can be made between the respective distances attained in tossing the discus in the Greek style and hurling it with the complex technique evolved by modern performers. Quite apart from the style employed is the weight of the discus. This, among Greek diskoi, which were generally made of bronze, varied widely (from less than 3 lb. to over 12), with an average weight of 5 lb. 11 oz. In comparison, the modern men's discus weighs only 4 lb. 6 1/2 oz. The best discus toss made by an ancient Greek performer--or at least the only record handed down--was made by Phayllos in one of his contests in the pentathlon, and was a distance of 105 ft. If this distance was attained using a discus of average weight (5 lb. 11 oz.), and if, instead of using an underhanded toss, Phyllos had applied modern technique to his throw, it can be calculated that he should have reached a distance of between 138 and 147 ft. While some modern performers in the decathlon have done no better than these figures, the world record (made by a much larger athlete), is over 232 ft. So, it may be said that for their bodily size the ancient Greek discustossers were on a par with the decathlon performers of today, but were decidedly inferior to the heavyweight record-holders in the discus.


Just as in the discus throw, the pentathlon event of hurling the javelin, or light spear, cannot be directly compared with the event as it is practiced today. This is mainly because (1) the object of the throw was primarily to attain accuracy, as in aiming at a target, rather than distance; and (2) the javelin was thrown with a leather thong (amentum) wound around the shaft. The thong, by reason of its length, in effect increased the length of the thrower's arm, thereby increasing the length of his throw. Too, the spiral winding of the thong increased the accuracy of the javelin's flight. Possibly as a result of these differences in the objective of the Greek javelin throw, no record has been handed down of what distances were attained.


To answer our opening question, How good were the ancient Greek athletes? it can only be said that physically they were the best of their time and place. But their small bodily size, compared with that of today's champion athletes, would necessarily have placed them at a disadvantage in the great majority of today's competitive events. That the Greeks themselves recognized the advantages of greater bodily size is shown in their sculptured figures of gods and heroes, in which a proportion, on the average, of 8 1/7 head-heights to total stature indicates a standing heights of from 6 ft. 4 in.

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