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5 Top Ancient Greek Olympians

by February 19, 2014

By Ben Potter

In a our world where are mainstream sporting heroes are millionaires, prima donnas, sex-offenders, and drug-cheats, the Olympics, can provide countries the world over with real sporting icons, icons worthy of that over- and misused term ‘role-model’.
However, the glory that our gold-medallists enjoy nowadays pales into insignificance when compared to that of the ancient winners.
ancient-sports-starsThis was because the games were only open to those from the Greek-speaking world. Moreover, there were merely a handful, rather than hundreds, of events, and it would have been quite likely that the victors would have returned to their pre-fame lives after the games – there were no sponsorship deals on offer then!
That’s not to say the winners of the Ancient Olympics didn’t enjoy their fair share of recompense. While they were rarely entitled to anything by law, the proud polis would often honor their returning hero with money, food and other such perks.
So, who were these noble competitors who fought to be the greatest physical specimens of The Greatest Civilization? Let’s have a look at some of them, shall we?

1. Coroebus of Elis – the first

A humble cook who grew up near the sanctuary of Olympia, Coroebus was the first man whom we can definitely say was an ‘Olympic champion’. He won the only event at the very first recorded Games in 776 BC – the stadion (which was an approximately 200 meters run).

2. Leonidas of Rhodes – the most prolific

Leonidas was the most successful Olympian ever.
Ever! And I’m including the modern Olympics in that.
Leonidas won the stadion, diaulos (circa.400 meters) and the hoplitodromos (a diaulos carrying 59lbs of armour) at each of the 164 BC, 160 BC, 156 BC and 152 BC games.
These twelve individual first-place finishes (the last of which he achieved at age 36) narrowly surpasses the 11 golds of Michael Phelps. It should be noted that while Phelps did technically win more golds overall, some of those were in relays… and none while wearing battle armour.

3. Diagoras of Rhodes – the happiest

Diagoras of Rhodes VictorRhodes’ second favourite son, Diagoras, was considered not only the happiest Olympian, but the happiest man in the world!
Descended from heroic royalty, Diagoras won the Olympic boxing crown twice. As if this weren’t enough to raise a smile, his eldest son twice triumphed in the brutal pankration. On the second occasion, in 448 BC, Diagoras’ second son simultaneously triumphed in the boxing.
Hoist aloft on the shoulders of his progeny, a wag in the crowd called out “Die, Diagoras; you will not also ascend to Olympus”. The humour of which was probably only appreciated later, as Diagoras promptly dropped dead on the spot.

4. Astylos of Croton – the saddest

A runner of great renown, Astylos was a highly controversial figure.
The reason being that, after bringing honour to Croton in the games of 488 BC, he turned-coat and, in 484 BC and 480 BC, decided to run for the rival Sicilian city of Syracuse.
His statue in Croton was destroyed, his disgraced family disowned him and his former lodgings were thought unworthy of a free man and were transformed into a prison.
The greatest sprinter of the 480s died a lonely exile, far from his family and friends.

5. Milo of Croton – the most impressive

Unlike Astylos, Milo was someone of whom Croton could really be proud.
Milo of CrotonMilo won five Olympic wrestling crowns consecutively between 536 – 520 BC.
Amazingly, these gongs may not represent the greatest achievements of Milo’s life.
He was said to have led a successful military assault against Sybaris in 510 BC and to have saved the life of Pythagoras (yes, THAT Pythagoras) by holding up the roof of a collapsing building. Consequently, he was given the mathematician’s daughter’s hand in marriage.
Less important, but no less impressive, are his alleged feats of strength and appetite.
He was said to have carried a bull on his shoulders before killing, cooking and eating the entire beast. Though this was perhaps excessive, his normal daily diet was 20 lbs of meat and 20 lbs of bread all washed down with 12 bottles of wine.
And completely uselessly, though again impressively, he was able to burst a headband simply by swelling the veins on his temple.
Death of Milo of CrotonAs so often happens with a unbelievable life, Milo suffered a unbelievable death, he was eaten alive by wolves because his hands were stuck in a tree trunk.
There is something deeply impressive and stirring about the achievements of all these citizens. They pushed their bodies to the extremes for the guarantee of no more corporeal gain than a crown of olive leaves.
However, like gallant generals, evocative poets and quixotic politicians, what they were truly yearning for was neither gold or even praise, but immortality. And although such a thing cannot realistically be attained by any man in any field, the fact that their names ring clear and true 2800 years after the event means their ‘athl’, their labours and suffering, cannot be said to have been in vain.

Pankration (Greek Martial Arts)

by October 1, 2013

By Jakob Renner
Ancient Greece is famously known for its rich culture, especially with regards to philosophy, art and noted intellectuals, but it is their sport with which we are interested in today.  In particular, the often unrecognized Greek contribution to the world of martial arts, a discipline known as the Pankration.
Jim Arvanitis, a renowned member of the Martial Arts Hall of Fame, states that Pankration is the first type of mixed martial arts of which we know. The origins and exact age of this fighting form, however, are hard to determine.
Vase showing PankrationLegend says that Hercules developed Pankration in order to become more formidable in wrestling tournaments. Another origin story by Plutarch is that Theseus created the Pankration in his battle with the Minotaur. While these are just myths, the fact that Pankration is connected to these revered heroes shows its importance to Ancient Greek culture. All the more evidenced by the fact that Pankration was one of the main events of the ancient Olympic games.
But what exactly is Pankration? And how was this martial art practiced?
To begin with, Pankration means “all power”. It was known in ancient times for its ferocity and allowance of such tactics as knees to the head and eye gouging.  
One ancient account tells of a situation in which the judges were trying to determine the winner of a match. The difficulty lay in that fact that both men had died in the arena from their injuries, making it hard to determine a victor. Eventually, the judges decided the winner was the one who didn’t have his eyes gouged out. Over time, however, maneuvers like eye gouging were discouraged to prevent such unpleasant incidents.
While Pankration may seem from these stories to be little more than a brutal free for all, it did have its formal stances (Stasi), punches (Efthia), kicks (Laktismata), and blocks (Apokrousis).
The only rules that were enforced by referees, with beating sticks in hand, was no gouging (eventually) or biting. This meant that competitors could be very creative with their attacks and defense, resulting in a plethora of options. Indeed, describing every Pankration movement would require writing a complete book.
Attic black-figure skyphosIn the end of the day though, the main goal in a match was to get your opponent to submit by raising an index finger in the air as a yield signal. The most common way to get this submission was a movement called a “choke”. This could be done with a front grip, where the trachea and windpipe are squeezed, or with a rear choke, where the caryatid arteries are closed by a forearm from behind.
Aside from chokes, an array of kicks, punches and blocks were used. Artist depictions on pottery show kicks to the stomach and shins. Punches had the best range of options from jabs to uppercuts and hooks. While blocking involved a key principle that is still taught by martial artists today, adapting to your opponent and looking for opportunities to counter their movements.
An example of this would be when your opponent is throwing a hook punch and your elbow point is used to absorb the impact of the knuckles. Then, while your opponent’s arm is extended, you punch the bicep and forearm crease with your free limb – effectively immobilizing your opponent’s remaining arm.
Panathenaic prize amphoraThis type of movement shows an interesting similarity to techniques found in Eastern martial arts, such as Kung Fu, Karate and Muay Thai.
But maybe this isn’t surprising at all… especially when you consider that Alexander the Great was a noted Pankration fighter. The famously ruthless Macedonian could have brought the martial art as far as his conquests in the Indus Valley, where cultural exchange could have allowed Pankration to spread to China and South East Asia.
While we we’ll never know for certain, perhaps in this way Pankration may very well be the mother of all martial art forms. The ancient Greeks left a tremendous legacy that is regularly represented by their art, literature and philosophy, but it is often overlooked that they did likewise in the field of fighting as well.