Friday, February 20, 2009

From Nude to Nike

A large number of people tuned in this summer to watch the 2008 Beijing Olympics, cheering on many of the poster-names of the games, like Michael Phelps (in his "pre-bong" days) or Shawn Johnson. If you are a runner, you most likely witnessed or heard about the marathon or other track events.

When you think of the runners who pioneered in Olympic competitions of ancient Greece, beyond knowing they often ran without shoes or clothes, do you truly know the origins of the sport? I think everyone should be familiar with their roots, and as a runner, that includes those runners that came before us - in this case, roughly 2,785 years ago.

Nowadays we run for recreation, competition, stress-relief, health, and a multitude of other reasons. Ancient runners, specifically those in Greece, used running for needs obsolete in modern times, such as the common battle, the transmission of messages, honor, and the physical fitness demanded by the militant mindset of city-states such as Sparta.

The Greeks did not believe in a pleasant after-life, so many ran for honor in the Olympic games, as the victor of one or more events was permitted to establish a statue of himself in the middle of his city, which included his name, event(s) he won, and a short quote. With this honor, they could live on forever in the memories of others.

Earliest records suggest the Olympics began in 776 B.C. and continued until about 393 A.D. As far as athletic nudity goes, this tradition was introduced in 720 B.C. for unclear reasons, although it is believed this practice elaborated on celebrating the achievements of the human body. Perhaps they were also more aero-dynamic?

Athletes had to be young, free men who spoke Greek. Before competing, they were required to take an oath before a statue of Zeus stating they had been in training for 10 months, a time during which they were supervised by the judge of the Games in Olympia. Only a limited number of women were allowed to compete in the races if they were a virgin, ran barefoot, and wore specific dress. In addition, the Heraea Games were the first sanctioned event for women athletes in honor of the goddess Hera. Can I get a "Hoor-ah!" for the ladies?!

Originally, the Olympics only included the stadion, which was a short sprint estimated to have been between 192 meters - the distance Hercules (Herakles), the mythical founder of the Games, was believed to have been able to cover in one breath. Later around 724 B.C., an approximately 400-meter race called the diaulos emerged, followed by an estimated 5-kilometer dolichos four years later. The last foot race to be introduced was hoplitodromos, which imitated the speed and stamina needed for warface, as the athletes ran a single or double diaulos (400 or 800 meters) toting armor, a shield, and either greaves (armor that protects the shin) or a helmet that totaled a weight of 50-60 pounds.

As if the hoplitodromos wasn't punishment in and of itself, those who started early were disqualified and underwent a corporal punishment - a cushioned term for the more honest and descriptive way of saying "beating." Runners were not allowed to push, knock down, or hold other runners, as well as being prohibited from bribery or performing magic spells. Those who cheated in the games had their names etched into the Bases of Zanes (pictured at left) onto which statues of Zeus were built. These structures which were financed by the cheaters' fines and discouraged others from breaking such rules.

Although the marathon is included in today's Olympics, the Games of ancient Greece did not include any event of this sort. The marathon originated from an event in which Pheidippides ran 260 kilometers from Athens to Sparta in 2 days to request Sparta's assistance because the Persians had reached Marathon (490 B.C.). Sounds like the guy had it easy! In modern-day marathons, we run that distance in half the time.

Despite the large time disparity, these early runners and traditions have greatly shaped modern running. So next time you're running, imagine you're retreating in battle, or even carrying an imperative message to your destination. It might just make you run a little faster.

No comments:

Post a Comment