top of page

No Holds Barred

...well, except for the gouging!

Marble sculpture of ancient Greek wrestlers 510 BC (part of exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, 2004). © Petros Giannakouris

The modern Olympic Games (both Summer and Winter) include about 35 different sports across roughly 400 events, with thousands of athletes competing. While some sports at the ancient Olympics, like running, discus and javelin, would be familiar to us, others would be quite strange. In spite of the continuity between the two, the ancient games were reflective of their time; religion was the focal point of them and many of the events took their cue from warfare (at least to a point).

A number of sports from the ancient games have survived and been incorporated into the modern ones, including the foot race (sprinting), boxing, wrestling, and the pentathlon. Other sports, however, have been left to the ancients. Sport in ancient Greece tended to be more violent; war and conflict was a part of everyday life and the men that were athletes tended to be soldiers too. Three ancient sports can be seen to reflect this in particular.


Potentially the most famous (and infamous) of the ancient Olympic sports, the pankration combined wrestling and boxing. Athletes would only wear very thin leather gloves and attempt, on open ground, to get their opponent to submit. The game had almost no rules, with the exception of no biting, gouging or grabbing of genitals.

Anything else was game - kicking, punching and choking included. The fighting was brutal and there are accounts of athletes dying while competing in the pankration. The Greek geographer Pausanias relays a story where one athlete lunged his fingers at his opponent, went through his skin and ripped his innards out. Ouch.

While it may not have inspired it, accounts of what pankration tournaments and training looked like does give it a resemblance to modern mixed martial arts (albeit more dangerous and less regulated). Apparently, however, it was less dangerous than boxing!

Terracotta skyphos, ca. 500 BCE. Attributed to the Theseus Painter. Rogers Fund, 1906., 06.1021.49. Met Museum.


The chariot race was the most popular and prestigious equestrian sport in the ancient games. Up to 40 chariots could compete and the event was inherently reserved for the wealthy, who could afford to keep and maintain both horses and chariots. The owners of the chariots would rarely compete in the race themselves, instead they would hire a driver - any victories, however, would go to the owner of the chariot.

It may not be immediately apparent why this was a dangerous sport. Horses are powerful and fast animals - combine two or more together and you get an impressive show of strength and speed. Once the signal was given, the chariots would all race, at full speed, forward; it was critical to be the first at the turning point (as the hippodrome was oval in shape). Inevitably, however, it led to chariots locking axles (the part connecting the wheels together and to the chariot), spills, flips and collisions as the turns were sharp. The entire race was twelve laps around the track. Deaths occurred.

Charioteer and horses (detail), Panathenaic amphora, c. 410-400 B.C.E., Attica © Trustees of the British Museum


The hoplitodromos (literally ‘race in armour’) was the last foot race in the ancient games. Competitors would run while wearing greaves and a helmet and carrying a shield, adding at least 6kg of weight to their person. The race was a single lap of the stadium, approximately 400m, with a sharp turn, and was overall a test of strength. The hoplitodromos was not only an athletic competition but also a military exercise, with suggestions made that the sharp turns and race length were influenced by Persian archers and how to effectively avoid them.

Hoplitodromos. Side B Attic black-figure Panathenaic amphora, 323–322 BCE. MN 704, Beazley, ABV 415.12 , 416.

Photograph: Marie-Lan Nguyen ©


bottom of page