Religious Games
Athletics: Track, Field, Wrestling, and Boxing

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The Real Story of the Ancient Olympic Games

To be an athlete in ancient Greece meant literally "to compete for a prize." Prizes could be of material value (money or objects) or of symbolic worth, like the plain wreaths of leaves awarded at Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia and Nemea. At the Panathenaic Games in Athens the amphoras presented to victorious athletes were filled with a particularly high-quality grade of olive oil. They must have been prized nearly as much for their contents as for the commemorative worth of their painted athletic scenes. An event composed of five individual contests, which included the discus, javelin, long jump, wrestling, and a foot race, was called the pentathlon. Its name continues in use today, although in the modern pentathlon several of the events have changed.

Attic Black Figure Amphora
ca. 510-490 BC
MS 403
A boxing contest or pugme. Two boxers wear soft leather himantes or boxing gloves. The man with the long stick is either a judge or trainer. A naked youth stands by, holding extra himantes.
H. 29.2; L. 18.5; Dia. 17.0 cm. Photo by Maria Daniels for the Perseus Project. (99k)
Attic Red Figure Kylix
ca. 460-450 BC
By the Penthesilea Painter
MS 5693
A pair of athletes leave a palaestra. One carries a bagged discus and raises his bronze strigil or scraper. The other carries his cloak. On the wall hangs an aryballos or container in which athletes kept oil to clean their bodies. After exercise the oil was scraped off with the bronze strigil.
H. 7.8; L. 29.0; Dia. 22.2 cm. Photo by Maria Daniels for the Perseus Project. (99k)

Attic Red Figure Kylix
ca. 490-480 BC
By Onesimos
Cortona, Italy
MS 2444
Two young men wrestle. Above them hangs a discus in its bag and a pair of jumping weights called halteres. Long jumpers used the weights to increase their competition distances by vigorously swinging them forward at the moment of takeoff. The coach or trainer stands to the left of the wrestlers, leaning on his staff and holding a long forked branch. The low column at the left suggests either a palaestra or gymnasium setting.
H. 9.4; L. 30.7; Dia. 23.6 cm. Photo by Maria Daniels for the Perseus Project. (99k)

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