Here is something you won’t soon find in today’s sports page: an athlete being praised for dying in competition. “Though it is indeed a great thing that he won at the cost of his life and goes to the land of the Blessed with the very dust of the struggle,” writes the ancient Greek teacher Philostratus, sometime in the 3 rd century AD. Probably even more surprising, the competitor Arrichion is being crowned victor, even in death. And the opponent of Arrichion, “signals concession with his hand” – the ancient Greek version of tapping out.
This is surely shocking to our modern sports’ sensibilities. We may consider this expression and event as savage, brutal and violent. But this was part of the Greek athletic and competitive culture: glorifying excellence in victory, whether in life or death. We’ve already seen that the Greeks were a warrior society where all (male) members of the city-states – from farmers to artisans – were expected to pick up their shield and spear and join the ranks of their fellow citizen-soldiers. To them, the struggles of the combat athletes were not foreign or strange but recognizable.
For the Greeks, wrestling, boxing and pankration were three of the most prominent athletic events in the Panhellenic crown festivals. The Greeks themselves called them the ‘’heavy events.” Heavier, stronger athletes tended to dominate the competition because, unlike our modern combat sports, there were no weight classes, no set number of rounds and no time limits.
Wrestling was the first combat sport added to the Olympic festival. In fact, it was the first event that wasn’t a foot race, when it entered the program in 708 BC – 68 years (or 17 Olympiads) after the start of the original tournament. The idea of ‘pinning’ your opponent didn’t exist for the ancient Greek grapplers. The author of Combat Sports in the Ancient World Michael Poliakoff, explains the difference between the modern and ancient sports: “Merely touching the back or shoulders to the ground constituted a fall; the term pin from modern wrestling, which implies holding the opponent to the ground, has no place in the ancient world.” (Note: Combat Sports, Poliakoff, p. 23- 24)
The ancient tactics were also much rougher than the modern version of wrestling. We read about strangleholds, submissions and even breaking fingers. We see in the artwork of the time, especially on vases, wrestlers engaging in headlocks, neck cranks (neck locks), waist locks and hip throws. To achieve victory, the ancient wrestler had to be the first to score three falls out a maximum of five matches. (Note: Combat Sports, Poliakoff, p. 27). Boxing was introduced in 688 BC, twenty years after wrestling. Philostratus informs us that we owe thanks to the Spartans for creating the sport.