The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 17, 2000

Heroes of Ancient Olympic Games
By Minakshi Chaudhry

IN the highly competitive Olympics, there is a very thin line of difference between winners and losers. The victors become household names all over the world.

There are many interesting stories of athletes who acclaim in the ancient Olympic Games that were held in Greece every four years from 776 B.C. until 393 A.D. For the Greeks, sport was a form of worship and they offered their best at the altar of the gods. An outstanding athlete would become a demi-god.

Several ancient authors such as Pindar, Pausanias, Strabo, and Dio Chrysostom have recorded the noteworthy exploits of some of the best-known Olympic victors of ancient times.


Diagoras of Rhodes

He was a boxer and victor in the 79th Olympiad, 464 B.C.

Diagoras embodied every quality of the noble ancient athlete, and was immortalised in one of the most famous odes of the poet Pindar. He was victorious in not only the Olympic Games, but also in every other major Greek athletic festival as well.

Diagoras’ family was of a ruling class of Rhodes, and the Rhodians claimed that the boxer himself was the son of the god Hermes. Such legends were common to the ancient Greeks who held their athletes in a great esteem. This also explains how mortal men could achieve "super-human" athletic excellence and attain god-like status.

In his Ode Olympain to Diagoras, Pindar praises the boxer as a "fair-fighter" and a "gigantic" man. He lived to witness the Olympic victories of his two sons Damagetos and Akousilaos. At the 83rd Olympiad in 448 B.C., Damagetos won the second of his two prizes for the Pankration, and Akousilaos won the Boxing victory. Then, the sons carried their father on their shoulders while the adoring crowd showered them with flowers and congratulated Diagoras on his sons. Another of his sons, Dorieus, won no less than three successive Olympic titles in the Pankration.

Melankomas of Caria

He was also a boxer and a victor in the 207th Olympics, 49 A. D.

Melankomas was from Caria, a region the Greeks called Asia Minor and is now known as Turkey.

This athlete, it is recorded, not only had beautiful body but had a brave soul as well. To prove his courage, Melankomas chose athletics, since this was the most honourable and path open to him. It is amazing that Melankomas was undefeated throughout his career, yet he never once hit an an opponent or was hit by one. His boxing style was to defend himself from the blows of the other boxer and avoid striking the other man. Invariably, the opponent would grow frustrated and lose his composure.

This unique style won Melankomas much admiration for his strength and endurance. He could allegedly fight the whole day, even in the summer, and he refused to strike his opponents even though he knew by doing so he would quickly end the match and secure an easy victory for himself.

His success was due to his rigorous training. Melankomas exercised far more than other athletes.

Milo of Kroton

He was a wrestler and six-time Olympic victor. He won once in boys’ wrestling in the 60th Olympiad held in 540 B.C. and was winner of wrestling competition for five times from 62nd to 66th Olympics, 532 to 516 B.C.

One of the most legendary athletes in the ancient world, Milo of Kroton was born in southern Italy, where Greece had many colonies. He won the boys’ wrestling contest in 540 B.C. and returned eight years later to win the first of five consecutive wrestling titles, a feat that seems incredible by modern standards. Rarely do modern-day Olympians compete in more than two or three Olympics over the course of their career.

Milo resisted retirement: By the time of the 67th Olympiad in 512 B.C., Milo was probably forty or more years old but he competed anyhow.

According to the ancient sources, Milo enjoyed showing off his unrivalled strength. For instance, he would clasp a pomegranate in his hand and challenged others try to take it away from him. Even though he was holding it so tightly that no one could remove it, he never crush the fruit. Sometimes, he would stand on a greased iron disk and challenge others to push him off it. Another of his favourite exhibitions was tying a cord around his forehead, holding his breath, and breaking the cord with his bulging forehead veins. Other times, the wrestler would stand with his right arm at his side, his elbow against him, and hold out his hand with thumb pointed upward and fingers spread. No one could successfully bend even his little finger.

Milo excelled even in warfare. When a neighbouring town attacked Kroton, Milo entered the battle wearing his Olympic crowns brandishing a club, and led his fellow countrymen to victory.

A follower of the famous philosopher Pythagoras, Milo once saved his friends. It happened that the roof of the hall where the Pythagoreans were meeting began to collapse. Milo stood and supported the central pillar until the others escaped to safety and then dashed out, saving himself.

In the end, however, all of this fame and strength did not save Milo from a less than glorious death. Milo was wandering through the forest when he found an old tree trunk with wedges inserted into it. In an attempt to test his strength, Milo placed his hands and, perhaps his feet, into the cleft of the trunk and tried to split apart the wood. He succeeded in loosening the wedges, which fell out, but the trunk closed on his hands, trapping him. There, according to the tale, he fell prey to wild beasts.

Polydamas of Skotoussa

He was pankratiast and was a winner in the 93rd Olympics held in 408 B.C. Very little is known about the Olympic victor Polydamas (also spelled Pulydamas) of Skotoussa, a city in Thessaly. His background, family life, and even the details of his Olympic triumph are a mystery.

Like many modern athletes, Polydamas the pankratiast was as well-known for non-athletic exploits as he was for his prowess in the Olympic Games. Ancient authors tend to compare his feats with those of the legendary Greek hero Herakles. Polydamas once killed a lion with his bare hands on Mount Olympus in a quest to imitate the labours of Herakles.

When the Persians heard about Polydamas, their king Dareius sent for Polydamas. There the athlete challenged three Persians, nicknamed the "Immortals" to fight him, three against one, and Polydamas was victorious.

One summer, Polydamas and his friends were relaxing in a cave when the roof began to crumble down upon them. Believing his immense strength could prevent the cave-in, Polydamas held his hands up to the roof, trying to support it as the rocks crashed down around him. His friends fled the cave and reached safety, but the pankratiast died there.

"The death of Polydamas... made it clear to all men how precarious it is to have great strength but little sense" wrote ancient chronicler, Diodorus Siculus.