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25-Jul-2019 06:32

The Rio Olympics will be the 31st Summer Games of the modern era, but they have a long way to go before they can compete with nearly 12 centuries of ancient Olympics.

Athletes came from across Greece to compete in everything from running to discus to boxing to horse racing, in honor of the Greek god Zeus.

But if you really want to understand ancient sport you need to look also at the thousands of surviving athletic inscriptions carved on stone from the last three centuries BC (the Hellenistic period) and the Roman Empire (from 31BC onwards): few other texts give such a vivid glimpse of ancient day-to-day life.

When you look at that material you realize just how bizarre and alien some aspects of ancient sport were by modern standards, especially the religious element.

Then the athletes would swear oaths on slices of wild boar's flesh in front of the statue of Zeus, promising good conduct.

But possibly a better precedent for the complexity of the modern preliminaries is the ancient tradition of sending out envoys (theoroi) across the Greek world.

The history of the triple jump is strangest of all.

It was invented for the 1896 Athens Olympics in response to an ancient text recording a long-jump record of more than 15 metres.

The evidence from the Roman Empire shows that this can't possibly be right.

Then there is the elitist ideal of Olympic amateurism in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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