Weird Sports: Olympic Oddities from the Ancient World

The Olympic canoe sprint, an event that starts on August 6, looks pretty weird when you think about it: human beings wrapped in brightly colored fabrics, sitting in little plastic shells, racing on a simulated river. It would have looked even weirder to the ancient Greeks. The first Olympic event was actually pretty simple, the stadion: a foot race of exactly one stade, which was a length of about 180 meters. It was run naked, it was over in less than a minute, and nobody capsized. The ancient Olympics did include some pretty weird sports however, and Gifts From the Gods: Art and the Olympic Ideal, currently on view at the Legion of Honor, exhibits several ancient coins depicting some of the oddest ones. 

coin with man and torch

Jockey galloping right, holding torch (obverse), silver didrachm, ca. 280-272 BC, Tarentum, Calabria. Anonymous Loan

The coin below depicts a man in full armor, crouching in front of a fish. He’s about to participate in the hoplitodromos, an event in which athletes loaded up their bodies with armor and took off running in a big group. Mayhem (predictably) ensued. Armor came loose, men tripped and fell, and there was general crowd-pleasing chaos.

coin with man crouching 
Hoplite runner right equipped with helmet, greaves, and shield, in starting position; before him a tunny fish, the symbol of Cyzicus (obverse), electrum stater, ca. 460–400 BC, Cyzicus, Mysia. Lent by FLK

The kalpe also involved a crazy run, but this time with horses. After a few laps around the track on the animals’ backs, the riders jumped off and ran the last lap alongside the galloping horse. In addition to the challenge of trying to keep up on foot with a horse, the competitors also had to avoid being trampled to death. It’s hard to image Jan Ebeling, an athlete from the United States who competes in dressage, getting down in the dust and challenging his horse to a one-on-one.

coin with man and horse 
Rider dismounting at the gallop, to run the last lap beside his horse (obverse), silver stater, ca. 425–400 BC, Celenderis, Cilicia. Anonymous loan

There’s no modern equivalent to one of the strangest events depicted on the coins: the salpinx, or the trumpeters’ competition. Trumpet blasts played an important function at the ancient Games, signaling to the crowd that events or announcements were about to start. Judges evaluated the competitors by placing themselves in different parts of the stadium, listening closely for each blast, and awarding the trumpeters with the best volume and clarity the coveted job of Olympic trumpeter as their prize.

coin with trumpets 
Two trumpets (reverse), silver zuz (equivalent of a Roman denarius) of the Bar Kochba War, AD 132–135, Judaea. Lent by RB

Judo, ping-pong, and trampoline are all part of the modern Olympics, and the pool of events keeps expanding. Even Quidditch, the imagined sport played on broomsticks in the Harry Potter books, was proposed as a demonstration sport in 2012. Regardless of how strange some of these sports might look to us a hundred years from now, we can probably count on one thing: there will always be a foot race, and it will probably look a lot like the very first one back in 776 BC.

Gifts from the Gods will be on view at the Legion of Honor through January 27, 2013.