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William Davis, A Day in Old Athens

 

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The Afternoon at the Gymnasia

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Page 17

Foot Races

 

    The continued noise from the stadium indicates that the races are still running; and we find time to go thither. The simple running match, a straight-away dash of 600 feet, seems to have been the original contest at the Olympic games ere these were developed into a famous and complicated festival; and the runner still is counted among the favorites of Greek athletics. As we sit upon the convenient benches around the academy stadium we see at once that the track is far from being a hard, well-rolled "cinder path"; on the contrary, it is of soft sand into which the naked foot sinks if planted too firmly, and upon it the most adept "hard-track" runner would at first pant and flounder helplessly. The Greeks have several kinds of foot races, but none that are very short. The shortest is the simple "stadium" (600 feet), a straight hard dash down one side of the long oval; then there is the "double course" ("diaulos") down one side and back; the "horse race"—twice clear around (2400 feet); and lastly the hard-testing "long course" ("dolichos") which may very in length according to arrangement,—seven, twelve, twenty, or even twenty-four stadia, we are told; and it is the last (about three miles) that is one of the most difficult contests at Olympia.

    At this moment a part of four hale and hearty men still in the young prime are about to compete in the "double race." They come forward all rubbed with the glistening oil, and crouch at the starting point behind the red cord held by two attendants. The gymnasiarch stands watchfully by, swinging his cane to smite painfully whoever, in over eagerness, breaks away before the signal. All is ready; at his nod the rope falls. The four fly away together, pressing their elbows close to their sides, and going over the soft sands with long rhythmic leaps, rather than with the usual rapid running motion. A fierce race it is, amid much exhortation from friends and shouting. At length, as so often—when speeding back towards the stretched cord,—the rearmost runner suddenly gathers amazing speed, and, flying with prodigious leaps ahead of his rivals, is easily the victor. His friends are at once about him, and we hear the busy tongues advising, "You must surely race at the Pythia; the Olympia; etc."

    This simple race over, a second quickly follows: five heavy, powerful men this time, but they are to run in full hoplite's armor—the ponderous shield, helmet, cuirass, and greaves. This is the exacting "Armor Race" ("Hoplitodromos"), and safe only for experienced soldiers or professional athletes.[8] Indeed, the Greeks take all their foot races seriously, and there are plenty of instances when the victor has sped up to the goal, and then dropped dead before the applauding stadium. There are no stop watches in the Academy; we do not know the records of the present or of more famous runners; yet one may be certain that the "time" made, considering the very soft sand, has been exceedingly fast.

 

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