Peter Jones

Dead good Olympian

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How the Olympics have changed! Even our ‘Greco-Roman wrestling’, which bars leg-holds and is scored by judges (unless a pinfall is registered), bears no similarity to any ancient version.

In ancient Olympia, the first to three falls was the winner, in rounds that went on till a fall was registered. A submission also counted. While there was room for speed and skill, the celebrity wrestlers were man-mountains, like Milo from Croton in southern Italy. He won the Olympic wrestling five times in a row on a diet of 20 pounds of bread and meat, gizzards of cockerels and 18 pints of wine a day. Amazing feats were ascribed to him — for example, he could break a band tied round his head simply by swelling his veins, and once carried a bull round a stadium, killed and ate it, in one day.

The toughest of contact sports was the pankration (‘all-in power’), a single fight to the finish, where anything was allowed except biting and gouging. Sostratos, for example, beat opponents by breaking their fingers. One Arrachion, previously undefeated, found himself in a deadly neck and leg lock. Fading fast, he managed to loosen the leg hold, kick out and dislocate his opponent’s ankle. In agony, Sostratos surrendered — Arrachion had won! But he had also died. His corpse was still crowned victor.

Another difference was the crowd. The historian Polybius describes how it traditionally supported the underdog. So when a young hopeful Egyptian took on the Greek champion boxer Cleitomachos, the crowd keenly supported him until Cleitomachos, taking a breather, asked them if they really wanted an Egyptian to beat a Greek. The change of allegiance was instant, and the hopeful was thrashed ‘more by the crowd than by Cleitomachos’. So ‘home advantage’ held as good then as now, but could not be as taken for granted as it is in London.

There were no medals on offer, only wild olive wreaths for the winners, who could bid for immortality by being permitted to put up a statue of themselves at Olympia. So far, Stratford boasts a commemorative plaque in ancient Greek. Well, it’s a pretty good start. Who’s for a nude Wiggo?