From mythology to reality: the past and the present of sports in Greece

On October 12th, Vienna, a 34-year-old Kenyan runner captured the world’s attention by becoming the first person ever to finish a marathon under two hours. Although never part of the ancient Olympic Games, we may all have heard about the impressive and heroic origins of the sport. Eliud Kipchoge, whose name shall be engraved in the history, crossed the finishing line and gestured to the crowd smiling broadly, let us reminisce about the Greek messenger Pheidippides, who strenuously run more than 25 miles to convey the news of victory to the citizens of Athens.

Marathon is certainly not the only legacy of ancient Greeks with fascinating mythological backgrounds that we are still practicing nowadays. Another athletic event called Pentathlon 【formed by the combination of two words, Pente(five) and Athlon(competition) 】can be even more exciting to watch. The ancient competition, much more fierce than its modern edition, consisted of the triagmos (long jump, javelin throw and discus throw), stadion foot race and finally wrestling. The game is said to be invented by Peleus during the adventures of the Argonauts, and in another story, the mythical hero Perseus fulfilled an oracle’s prophecy by accidentally killing his maternal grandfather Acrisius striking him on the head with a discus while competing in the pentathlon.

While the athletes of pentathlon were considered to be the most beautiful ones according to Aristotle, an even more violent kind of sports was designed for combatants. Pankration was probably one of the brutal forms of fighting in the ancient word, “combining the stealth and harsh blows of Boxing with the entrapping holds and locks of Wrestling”. Even worse, there were only two rules regarding combat: no eye gouging or biting(They were allowed in Sparta anyway), thus giving the fighters almost full freedom to use deadly movements in order to defeat their opponents. In mythology, Heracles used pankration to subdue the Nemean lion while another renowned hero Theseus, considered as the deviser of this sport, applied his legendary combative techniques to the dreaded Minotaur in the Labyrinth, resulting in its death. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t reinstated as an Olympic event in modern times, but it has evolved over time and successfully resurrects under the name of Mixed Martial Arts which still attracts large amount of audience every year.

The last integrated part of ancient Olympic Games was the chariot racing, which was held in the Hippodrome, where the charioteers were supposed to finish 12 laps with sharp turns around. Just like the other sports mentioned above, there was a lot of danger involved in chariot racing, but that’s what made spectators really excited. Sometimes the fanatic supporters went beyond control and bloody fights broke out between rivals, not only in the realm of myths, where Pelops, the son of Tantalus who was brought back to life with the help of the gods, challenged and won the deadly chariot race against Oenomaus, the king of Pisa who got his magic chariot from Ares and previously killed a dozen of beaten suitors of his daughter whom he loves incestuously, but also in reality. Known as the Nika Revolt, some conflicts over chariot racing and an inappropriate decision of the Emperor Justinian in the Hippodrome gave rise to a devastating riot and a political coup which almost threatened his reign. About thirty thousand rioters were reportedly killed in Constantinople. This tragedy marked the start of the sport’s decline. Later, as the Byzantine Empire plunged into incessant wars, chariot games, which were expensive to hold and maintain, faded in importance and the Hippodrome finally fell into ruin by the time the crusaders took over and sacked the city.

The independence of Kingdom of Greece in the nineteenth century made it possible to reintroduce the ancient Olympic sports to people’s lives. Greeks naturally love doing sports and build a lot of gymnasiums for people to train and compete, but such passion no longer seems to allow them to become top performers in modern Olympic Games. Although Greece indeed has a perfect attendance record (it’s one of the five countries to have been represented at all summer Olympic Games) , there were numerous times that they came back home without winning any medals. Greece is also home to some craziest groups of sports fans. The archrivalry between two most successful multi-sport clubs Olympiacos and Panathinaikos is traditionally called “The Derby of eternal rivals” or “Mother of all battles” in Greece and we can even imagine how intense the atmosphere was during a chariot race in the Hippodrome through the wild flaring scenes happened nowadays inside a football stadium. Their rivalry also extends into other sports as basketball, volleyball and water polo — despite the gold medals achieved in shooting, gymnastics and pole vault in the last Olympic Games, those team sports are probably most popular among Greek people.

In conclusion, Greece is definitely more than gorgeous landscapes of picturesque Santorini island and the witty quotes by ancient philosophers carved on historical remains. The Olympic flame, commemorating the theft of fire from Zeus by Prometheus, burns and shines forever, just like the everlasting myths the Greek ancestors have left us.

(photo credits to )


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