Category Archives: Sport
Kyniska (or Cyniska), a Spartan princess, was the daughter of King Archidamus II and sister to King Agesilaus.
She owned a sizable estate where she bred, raised and trained horses, and in 396 BCE, when she was probably between 40 and 50 years old, she became the first woman to participate in the Olympic Games.
Spartan culture believed stronger children come from parents who were both strong, an unusual concept in Ancient Greek society. Spartan authorities encouraged women to train both mind and body.
Unlike Athens and the other Greek city-states where girls were hidden from the public and learned only domestic skills, Sparta held races and trials of strength for girls as well as boys.
Kyniska’s childhood would have been full of athletic training: running, jumping, throwing the discus and javelin, perhaps even wrestling.
Spartan girls married later, allowing more years in education. Aristocratic girls such as Kyniska learned poetry and also trained to dance and sing competitively, so she may have even been literate.
Kyniska had wealth and status – but it was her ambition that made her a legend.
This ambition drove her to compete in the four-horse chariot race, or tethrippon, at the Olympics in 396 and 392 BCE.
Her chariot team won both times.
No women allowed
This feat was especially impressive because women could not even step foot on the sacred grounds of the Olympic Sanctuary during the festival. Married women were forbidden on penalty of death from even attending as spectators.
To compete, Kyniska cleverly exploited loopholes.
In sports like wrestling or javelin, the victors individually competed on the field. In the chariot race, the winners were the horse owners, not the riders – who were almost always slaves. Much like with the modern Kentucky Derby or Melbourne Cup, the victors are the horse and its owner, not the rider.
Kyniska didn’t have to drive the chariot to win.
In fact, chariot team owners did not even have to be physically present at Olympia during the games. Kyniska could enter her chariot team in the race without ever stepping foot on the forbidden sacred grounds.
But Kyniska’s role was not secret. News of an Olympic victory was carried by fast messengers to the victor’s home city, where preparations to celebrate their return were begun at once. News that a woman had won an Olympic contest would have spread quickly.
What motivated a Spartan royal to break through the difficult glass ceiling of male-dominated Olympic competition and culture? The scant sources we have offer different opinions.
The answer may involve a bit of both.
Many ancient Greek women won Olympic victories after Kyniska, but none were as famous as she.
Kyniska erected at least two life-size bronze statues of herself at Olympia. The inscription on a remaining fragment of her marble statue base reads:
Kings of Sparta were my fathers and brothers. I, Kyniska, victorious at the chariot race with her swift-footed horses, erected this statue. I claim that I am the only woman in all Greece who won this crown.
Kyniska relished her fame. Agesilaus may have been the catalyst, but Kyniska herself probably decided to compete – at least the second time.
Other women would go on to compete in the chariot races, and by the 1st century CE women were competing directly against men in foot racing events – and winning.
The fact Kyniska didn’t physically compete has caused history to discount her achievements, but this argument marginalises her larger accomplishment. Amid enormous cultural barriers, Kyniska broke gender norms and glass ceilings.
By boldly and proudly celebrating her trailblazing victories with commemorative statues, she transmitted this message to women across the Greek world.
Fuelled by Spartan pride, Kyniska’s accomplishment to be the first woman to compete, and win, in the male-only Olympics is a startling and memorable achievement that deserves a prominent place in Olympic lore.
The start of the Australian Open, the first tennis grand slam of the year, signals detailed discussions of metrics such as points won, serve speeds and shot placement. While many of these performance metrics can, of course, be attributed to the player, we should also consider the important role played by the racket.
Tennis is an old sport with a rich history of technological development in equipment. Wimbledon, the oldest tennis tournament, was founded in 1877, and the first Australian Open was held in 1905. Through the application of advanced engineering, the tennis racket has changed considerably since these early competitions, as detailed in a recent research article and summarised in the video below.
Early tennis rackets borrowed their design from the older sport of real tennis, an early racket sport dating back to around the 16th century and played by the rich and elite. They were made of wood, with long handles and small lopsided heads, which made it easier for the player to bring the hitting surface close to the ground to hit the typically low bouncing balls of real tennis. These soon disappeared as tennis developed as a sport in its own right. Symmetrical racket frames were becoming commonplace by the time of the first Australian Open.
Most manufacturers continued to make their rackets from wood until the 1960s, with few other design developments seen. Some early tennis racket manufacturers did produce metal frames to try and overcome the issue of wood warping due to humidity, but these were unsuccessful.
Not only does metal offer less damping than wood, meaning the player feels harsher vibrations if they mishit the ball, but the metal frame often damaged the natural gut strings at the point of contact. The Dayton Steel Racket Corporation attempted the use of more durable metal strings, but these affected the felt cover on the ball and were prone to rusting.
A technology boom
The start of the open era in 1968, when professionals and amateurs began competing together for cash prizes, was probably a key driver behind the rapid development of tennis rackets seen around this period. During the 1960s wooden rackets were still the most common, but fibre-reinforced composite materials such as fibreglass started to appear as a reinforcement on wooden frames, like the Challenge Power by Slazenger and the Kramer Cup by Wilson.
By the 1970s, racket engineers were experimenting with a range of materials, such as wood, fibre-reinforced composites, aluminium and steel. A key racket from this period was the Classic by Prince, based on a 1976 patent from Howard Head. The Classic was made of aluminium, which allowed for a much larger head than its wooden predecessors and made it easier to hit the ball. Plastic grommets were used to overcome the issue of string (now synthetic) damage experienced with earlier metal rackets.
The Classic set the foundations for the modern tennis racket, with most of its successors featuring large heads. Indeed, the International Tennis Federation began limiting racket size in 1981, so technological developments would not change the nature of the game.
Since the 1980s, high-end tennis rackets have been made from fibre-reinforced composite materials, such as fibreglass, carbon fibre and aramid (strong synthetic fibres). The advantage of these composite materials over wood and metal is their high stiffness and low density, combined with manufacturing versatility. Composites provide the racket engineer with more freedom over parameters such as the shape, mass distribution and stiffness of the racket, as they can control the placement of different materials around the frame.
While wooden rackets had small, solid cross sections, composite rackets have large, hollow cross sections to give high stiffness and low mass. The increased design freedom offered by composites was demonstrated with the introduction of “widebody” rackets, such as the Profile by Wilson, in the late 1980s. Widebody rackets have larger cross sections around the centre of the frame than the handle and tip, to give higher stiffness in the region of maximum bending.
The higher stiffness of composite rackets means that they lose less energy to vibrations upon impact, so the player can hit the ball faster. However, there may be an increased risk of overuse injury to the arm when using a high stiffness racket with a large head. A lightweight modern racket with a lower swingweight (moment of inertia about the handle) is also easier for the player to wield, and they tend to swing them faster during strokes.
Despite the higher swing speed achieved with a lighter racket, ball speeds tend to remain similar as the increased racket speed is counteracted by the reduction in striking mass. There is most likely an optimum racket for each player, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution, and player preference is an important consideration. Customisation techniques and player monitoring using sensor and camera systems are likely to play an important role in the future of tennis racket design.
Modern composite tennis rackets are made using labour intensive processes that are not very environmentally friendly. We may see racket manufacturers exploring more sustainable materials, such as recycled and natural fibre composites, and more automated manufacturing techniques like additive manufacturing. We might monitor how a player swings a racket using a sensor, and then manufacture them a customised racket optimised to their playing style.
The development of the tennis on display at the Australian Open has been bound to the evolving design of the racket. Researchers have calculated that a player could serve the ball around 17.5% faster using a modern racket than with those used by the first players in the 1870s. No doubt we will see further advances in racket design shape the sport into the future.
This Major League Baseball season, fans may notice a patch on the players’ uniforms that reads “MLB 150.”
The logo commemorates the Cincinnati Red Stockings, who, in 1869, became the first professional baseball team – and went on to win an unprecedented 81 straight games.
As the league’s first openly salaried club, the Red Stockings made professionalism – which had been previously frowned upon – acceptable to the American public.
But the winning streak was just as pivotal.
“This did not just make the city famous,” John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, said in an interview for this article. “It made baseball famous.”
Pay to play?
In the years after the Civil War, baseball’s popularity exploded, and thousands of American communities fielded teams. Initially most players were gentry – lawyers, bankers and merchants whose wealth allowed them to train and play as a hobby. The National Association of Base Ball Players banned the practice of paying players.
At the time, the concept of amateurism was especially popular among fans. Inspired by classical ideas of sportsmanship, its proponents argued that playing sport for a reason other than for the love of the game was immoral, even corrupt.
Nonetheless, some of the major clubs in the East and Midwest began disregarding the rule prohibiting professionalism and secretly hired talented young working-class players to get an edge.
After the 1868 season, the national association reversed its position and sanctified the practice of paying players. The move recognized the reality that some players were already getting paid, and that was unlikely to change because professionals clearly helped teams win.
Yet the taint of professionalism restrained virtually every club from paying an entire roster of players.
The Cincinnati Red Stockings, however, became the exception.
The Cincinnati experiment
In the years after the Civil War, Cincinnati was a young, growing, grimy city.
The city had experienced an influx of German and Irish immigrants who toiled in the multiplying slaughterhouses. The stench of hog flesh wafted through the streets, while the black fumes of steamboats, locomotives and factories lingered over the skyline.
Nonetheless, money was pouring into the coffers of the city’s gentry. And with prosperity, the city sought respectability; it wanted to be as significant as the big cities that ran along the Atlantic seaboard – New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Cincinnati’s main club, the Red Stockings, was run by an ambitious young lawyer named Aaron Champion. Prior to the 1869 season, he budgeted US$10,000 for his payroll and hired Harry Wright to captain and manage the squad. Wright was lauded later in his career as a “baseball Edison” for his ability to find talent. But the best player on the team was his 22-year-old brother, George, who played shortstop. George Wright would end up finishing the 1869 season with a .633 batting average and 49 home runs.
Only one player hailed from Cincinnati; the rest had been recruited from other teams around the nation. Wright had hoped to attract the top player in the country for each position. He didn’t quite get the best of the best, but the team was loaded with stars.
As the season began, the Red Stockings and their new salaries attracted little press attention.
“The benefits of professionalism were not immediately recognized,” Greg Rhodes, a co-author of “Baseball Revolutionaries: How the 1869 Red Stockings Rocked the Country and Made Baseball Famous,” told me. “So the Cincinnati experiment wasn’t seen as all that radical.”
The Red Stockings opened the season by winning 45 to 9. They kept winning and winning and winning – huge blowouts.
At first only the Cincinnati sports writers had caught on that something special was going on. Then, in June, the team took its first road trip east. Playing in hostile territory against what were considered the best teams in baseball, they were also performing before the most influential sports writers.
The pivotal victory was a tight 4-to-2 win against what had been considered by many the best team in baseball, the powerful New York Mutuals, in a game played with Tammany Hall “boss” William Tweed watching from the stands.
Now the national press was paying attention. The Red Stockings continued to win, and, by the conclusion of the road trip in Washington, they were puffing stogies at the White House with their host, President Ulysses Grant.
The players chugged home in a boozy, satisfied revel and were met by 4,000 joyous fans at Cincinnati’s Union Station.
The Red Stockings had become a sensation. They were profiled in magazines and serenaded in sheet music. Ticket prices doubled to 50 cents. They drew such huge crowds that during a game played outside of Chicago, an overloaded bleacher collapsed.
Most scores were ridiculously lopsided; during the 1869 season the team averaged 42 runs a game. Once they even scored 103. The most controversial contest was in August against the Haymakers of Troy, New York. The game was rife with rumors of $17,000 bets, and bookmakers bribing umpires and players. The game ended suspiciously at 17 to 17, when the Haymakers left the field in the sixth inning, incensed by an umpire’s call. The Red Stockings were declared the winners.
The season climaxed with a road trip west on the new transcontinental railroad, which had just opened in May. The players, armed with rifles, shot out windows at bison, antelope and even prairie dogs and slept in wooden Coleman cars lighted with whale oil. More than 2,000 excited baseball fans greeted the team in San Francisco, where admission to games was one dollar in gold.
Cincinnati ended its season with an undefeated record: 57 wins, 0 losses. The nation’s most prominent sports writer of the day, Henry Chadwick, declared them “champion club of the United States.”
Despite fears that others clubs would outbid Cincinnati for their players, every Red Stockings player demonstrated his loyalty by signing contracts to return for the 1870 season.
The demise begins
The winning streak continued into the next season – up until a June 14, 1870, game against the Brooklyn Atlantics.
After nine innings, the teams were tied at 5. Under the era’s rules, the game could have been declared a draw, leaving the streak intact. Instead Harry Wright opted to continue, and the Red Stockings ended up losing in extra innings after an error by the second baseman, Charlie Sweasy.
The 81-game win streak had ended.
The Red Stockings did not return in 1871. Ticket sales had fallen after their first loss, and other teams began to outbid the Red Stockings for their star players. Ultimately the cost of retaining all of its players was more than the Cincinnati club could afford.
Yet the team had made its mark.
“It made baseball from something of a provincial fare to a national game,” Thorn explained.
A few years later, in 1876, the National League was founded and still exists today. The Cincinnati Reds were a charter member. And not surprisingly, some of the biggest 150-year celebrations of the first professional baseball team are occurring in the town they once called Porkopolis.
Over the next two weekends, the Australian Football League celebrates the contribution of Indigenous peoples to the history of the game.
At the same time, a new documentary will show how one of the modern Indigenous superstars of the sport, Adam Goodes, was driven from it by prejudice and repeated denigration.
Clearly, Indigenous players have made huge inroads in professional Australian football leagues. In fact, to mark this year’s Indigenous round, the AFL Players Association recently updated its map celebrating the 84 male Indigenous players and 13 female players in the league and showing where they come from.
But in order to understand how we got to this point, it’s important to know the full history of Indigenous involvement in the sport, including the discrimination faced by players like Goodes, and all those who came before him.
The early days on missions and stations
In my latest book, Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century, I examine the long history of Aboriginal involvement in Australian football since the game was codified in the middle of the 19th century. It’s a story of resilience in the face of sometimes overwhelming obstacles to their participation.
By the 1860s, the Indigenous population of Victoria had been drastically reduced to just a few thousand people, due largely to massacres, disease, and the other impacts of European settlement. Most of these people were confined to missions or stations in remote parts of the colony under the control of “protectors.”
In the second half of the century, the Indigenous inhabitants of these institutions saw the white settlers playing football and sought to take part. They brought skills developed in hunting and their own games like marngrook and joined the white players in football games, first as individuals and then by forming their own teams.
Eventually, the Indigenous teams started taking part in and then winning local leagues. It was a triumph of the human spirit in the face of appalling adversity.
This story can only be told because the deeds of these early generations of Indigenous players were reported in the sports pages of newspapers digitised by the National Library of Australia. Indigenous deeds on the field were being recounted positively, a contrast to the typical media reports of the day focused on “outrages” committed by – or less often, against – our original inhabitants.
Dominating and winning league titles
The numbers of Indigenous players remained small throughout the 19th century and getting leave to compete from the missions and stations was often difficult or inconsistent. Indigenous Australians may have found it slightly easier to break into individual sports like pedestrianism or boxing than team games like cricket and football at the time.
But many Indigenous teams found success. At Coranderrk in the Upper Yarra Valley near Melbourne, Indigenous people from the station began playing regularly in the 1890s, forming a team to compete in local competitions involving three non-Aboriginal teams, Healesville, Lilydale and Yarra Glen.
Dick Rowan was invited to play with the South Melbourne club in 1892, but when he sought permission to play again the following season, he was refused by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines of Victoria. Their reason: if he was allowed to play, others would wish to follow. The board wanted to keep Indigenous people on the periphery.
In 1911, the Coranderrk team won the local league against white teams for the first time, but could not field a team the following year after several of their players were recruited by other clubs.
Other dominant Indigenous teams of the era included Framlingham, Lake Condah, Lake Tyers and above all Cummeragunja. Cummeragunja had suffered heavy defeats in the late 1880s, but the team eventually became so strong that it won the Western and Moira League five out of six years, and was promptly handicapped. (They were not allowed to field players over the age of 25.) In 1900, they ran rings around a strong Bendigo team and gave a Ballarat team a close game, as well.
Lake Tyers in Gippsland followed a similar pattern. After the first world war, the team became the receptacle for Indigenous players moved from other stations and missions around the state and was extremely successful, winning the East Gippsland League in 1934, 1938 and 1939.
Critics will point out that this was only “bush football”, but that was all that was on offer to Indigenous teams. They could not get regular matches against professional Melbourne teams, and Indigenous players were denied opportunities to play in senior leagues owing to racial bias.
There were a few exceptions, including Doug Nicholls from Cummeragunja, who was later knighted and became governor of South Australia. He rhapsodised about playing the game:
Once on the football field, I forget everything else. I’m playing football. I never take my eyes off that ball. My aim is not only to beat my opponent, but also to serve my side. I realise that in football as in other things, it’s team-work that tells.
My aim in writing this book was to show how the history of the game could be rewritten to better reflect Indigenous contributions and experiences by using newspapers and other materials of the day as a basis, even the much maligned “colonial record”. This may assist Indigenous peoples to tell the story from their perspective about what happened to their ancestors and their more recent history.
As the Wiradjuri historian Lawrence Bamblett argues, this could have a positive impact on the sport and help counter the racism and discrimination that Indigenous peoples still face both on and off the field.
…broadening the discourse will bring representations of Aborigines in the writing about sport more closely into line with the richer lived experiences of individuals, and this in itself combats racism.
My hope is that some young Indigenous people with an interest in football will take up this story and tell it from their unique perspective.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
When we think of Australians who made history in 1915, the rugged Anzac is the figure who first springs to mind. A century after the Gallipoli campaign, that year has become near synonymous with the mythologised soldiers who fought and died in the Dardanelles.
But months before Australia’s so-called “baptism by fire” began at Anzac Cove, a more joyful baptism drew crowds to Sydney’s northern beaches. There, in January 1915, local 15-year-old Isabel Letham was inducted into the mysteries of surfing, becoming one of the first Australians to ride the waves.
This was the early days of Australia’s beach culture, as public bathing had only been legalised a few years before. Surf boards were almost unknown, and beachgoers instead entertained themselves with body surfing—then known as “surf shooting”.
Into this scene arrived Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimmer and famed surfer from Hawai’i, the home of modern surf culture. Kahanamoku had been visiting Australia to test himself against local swimming talent, but was convinced to add a surfing demonstration to his itinerary. Sydneysiders were keen to see the handsome Polynesian show off the unfamiliar sport, and punters lined the sand of Freshwater beach.
Once in the waves, Kahanamoku decided to enhance the show with a tandem demonstration, and invited Letham to join him on the board. They made a striking couple: Kahanamoku was tall and muscled, while Letham was lithe and vivacious, her skin bronzed from long days at the beach. The duo were a local sensation, and Letham was hailed as the “Freshwater mermaid”. Thanks to the visiting Hawai’ian, both surfing and Letham were now big news.
Emboldened by this Australian celebrity, Letham decided to try her luck on the silver screen. The US film industry was taking the world by storm, and Hollywood was the place to be. Leaving school at 16, Letham found employment as a sports mistress at elite girls’ school Kambala, and also worked as a private swimming instructor.
By August 1918, she’d saved enough for a fare to California. The war was still raging but that was not enough to deter her. Still only in her teens, Letham set sail on the SS Niagara, the “Queen of the Pacific”. She travelled alone and with only the vaguest outline of a plan.
‘A young Diana of the waves’
Letham had no luck in Hollywood, but nonetheless revelled in the freedom of life abroad. She tackled the waves at Waikiki, partied with Russian aristocrats in New York, and lived a bachelorette lifestyle in Los Angeles, hairdressing to pay the bills. In California she continued to turn heads with her surfing skills, known as “a young Diana of the waves”.
Although she returned to Sydney in 1921 to nurse her ailing father, Letham was lured back to California soon after his death in 1923. This time, she settled in San Francisco, where she became a celebrated swimming instructor. At first, Letham worked at the University of California, Berkeley, where she developed expertise in modern approaches to swimming pedagogy, which stressed the technical mastery of each stroke.
Later she taught children at San Francisco’s public baths, and in 1926 was appointed swimming instructor at the luxurious City Women’s Club, an institution which boasted “the most beautiful indoor pool on the Pacific coast”. Having decided that “opportunities in the States were high for women”, Letham had adopted US citizenship in 1925. She was, by this point, a modern woman par excellence: economically independent, physically daring and unapologetically ambitious.
One of her ambitions was to introduce Australian-style beach safety patrols to California, where swimmers drowned at an alarming rate. In 1925, she had reached out to the Sydney lifesaving community to get them on board.
To her dismay, this idea was scuttled when Sydney’s surf clubs refused to grant Letham membership. “We do not teach ladies the work”, decreed the president of the national Surf Life Saving Association. Without any formal affiliation to the lifesaving movement, Letham found it nigh impossible to carry its message overseas, and her plan to export Australian expertise and reduce Californian fatalities came to naught.
A champion of women
In 1929, disaster struck. Letham fell down a manhole and suffered a serious back injury that required months of rehabilitation. Unable to work, she retreated to her family home in Sydney. Soon after, Wall Street crashed and her mother became seriously ill. Faced with financial strain and family responsibilities, Letham had little choice but to remain in Australia – a twist of fate she would long regret.
Back in Sydney, Letham derided the primitive state of local swimming education, and began teaching at pools throughout the northern suburbs. She was also an early proponent of synchronised swimming, and in the 1950s organised a “water ballet” at the Freshwater Ladies’ Swimming Club – an event inspired by the “rhythm swimming” she had observed at Berkeley several decades earlier. No longer a resident of the United States, her American citizenship was revoked in 1944.
In 1961, Isabel Letham retired as a swim coach. Over the previous three decades, she had become an icon of Sydney’s northern beaches, known and beloved for introducing generations of children to the water. Still living in the family home near South Curl Curl, she swam daily in the sea.
Later in life, Letham emerged as an enthusiastic champion of women’s incursion into the masculinist culture of Australian surfing.
“There’s no reason why girls should not be as good on surfboards as the boys. I’m all for them,” she proclaimed in 1963. In 1978, she became a life member and patron of the Australian Women Board Riders Association, and in 1993 was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame. She was an inspiration to a later generation of female surfers.
Although it was a man who first made her famous back in 1915, Isabel remained fiercely independent and never married. She lived until the ripe old age of 95, passing away on 11 March 1995. A true water baby until the end, her ashes were scattered off Manly and Freshwater beaches.
Like sport or hate it, it’s hard to deny the role that sporting lingo plays in our daily lives.
Corporate language everywhere groans with references of people leveling playing fields, getting balls rolling, moving goal posts, lighting fires under their teams, blocking and tackling, even touching base offline – and of course it’s all done by the playbook and at close of play.
Perhaps it’s just not cricket, but politics is also rife with sporting lingo. Shirtfronting has escaped the on-field aggression of the AFL to cover diplomatic spats. Both the captain’s pick and captain’s call have slipped out of sporting jargon and onto the political football field. Political parties have even been accused of ball-tampering.
And so, we say to you, tenez! (“take, receive”), as a 14th century tennis player is believed to have called out before serving a ball (a French cry that reputedly gave tennis its name).
Allow us to bandy around (a tennis term) a few ideas here as we run with (a football term) a brief review of sporting lingo inside the bloody arena and throughout our daily lives.
Tickets and etiquette in ‘disport’
The word sport is a shortening of an earlier term disport, which from the 14th century broadly encompassed any form of relaxation or diversion.
In fact, from the 15th century, one meaning of sport was a playful reference to romance and lovemaking. This died off in the 18th century, but another 15th century meaning, “activity of skill and exertion with set rules or customs”, has withstood the test of time.
At sports events, you might see the reverse side of your ticket setting out rules of etiquette for spectators. Both derive from an Old French word estiquette meaning “note or label”. The word etiquette emerged in late 17th century French as a note detailing the rules and customs for engaging with the Spanish court.
But etiquette in modern sporting contests includes being nice to umpires. Sure, they make some tough calls, but so do we as English speakers.
After all, the word umpire actually derives from the Norman French noumpere, corresponding to “non-peer”, the one who stood out among peers. (Linguistic boundary lines have been problematic for some time — but that, as the saying goes, is a whole nother story.)
Umpires try to keep the peace, but more than a few words derive from the punishing and warlike nature of sport. Melbourne Demons coach Simon Goodwin said his team would learn from the “drubbing” they received from West Coast.
We can only hope he intended the modern meaning of drub (“beat badly in a sporting contest”), and not the meaning associated with drub‘s 17th century Arabic origins (“the flogging of feet”).
Sporting language in everyday speech
We’re surrounded by sporting language, much of it from sports to which we no longer pay much heed — some forgotten entirely.
Archery has been quiet contributor over the years. The verb to rove “wander about with no purpose in mind”, for instance, comes from a 15th century archery term meaning “shoot arrows randomly at an arbitrarily selected target”.
The original upshot was the final shot in a match (a closing or parting shot). The first bolt was a crossbow projectile.
Even those disapproving of the “sport” of hunting have to admire its contributions to language. A tryst, now “an assignation with a lover”, was originally “an appointed station in hunting”. A ruse, these days a general term for “deception”, was the detour hunted animals made to elude the hounds.
These sagacious “acute-smelling” hounds would occasionally run riot “follow the scent of animals other than the intended prey”. Retrieving was flushing out their re-found quarry and worry “seize by the throat” was what they did to it once they got it.
Hawking or falconry must have once played a central role in our lives for this sport has donated a number of expressions. Haggard was originally used to describe wild hawks, and to pounce derives from their pounces or fore-claws.
And reclaim or rebate referred to calling the hawk “back from flight”. It was carried out by a special pipe known as a lure, which is now a general word meaning “magnetism” or “attraction”.
Some sports have completely disappeared but have left behind relics in some common expressions. Pall-mall (probably from Middle French pale-mail “ball-mallet”) was a croquet-like lawn game in the 16th and 17th centuries. It gave its name to straight roads or promenades (such as Pall Mall in London), before it then morphed into the shopping malls of modern times.
Even the medieval jousting tournament is the source of a few current expressions like break a lance, tilt at and at full tilt, meaning “at full speed”. (The tilt was originally the barrier separating the combatants and later was applied to the sport itself.)
These days, jousting refers generally to any sort of banter or sparring between individuals who might have thrown down or taken up the gauntlet, meaning “challenged” or “accepted a challenge”. (The gauntlet refers to the knight’s mailed glove).
Unlucky players might end up being thrilled (originally pronounced “thirled”), which doesn’t mean ecstatic, but rather pierced by a lance or spear.
Up there Cazaly!: on with the ‘people’s tournament’
And spare a final thought for the “people’s tournament” — the medieval game that gave us the word football. As Heiner Gillmeister points out, there is evidence this game was also opened by the cry tenez!
Whether it was played in the monastery cloisters (the arches forming the original goals) or in an open space (so-called “mob football” played between two villages — a tough gig for the boundary umpire), it was a bloody and riotous affair getting that ball full of wynde to the target area.
As Sir Thomas Elyot put it in The Boke Named the Governour (1531):
Nothinge but beastly furie, and exstreme violence
Like sport or hate it, we hope you’ve found our linguistic shirtfronting here gentle, fun and appropriate as far as captain’s calls go.
Every two years, when the Winter or Summer Olympics comes around, we hear about how the games staged at Olympia in Greece since 776 B.C. came to a sudden end in the late fourth century A.D. The finger is pointed at the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395), who is said to have banned the Olympics in the 390s as part of a wider political program directed against pagan religion, its rituals, and its festivals.
The idea that the athletic contests – held in honour of the Greek god Zeus for over a thousand years – were shut down by a puritanical Christian emperor makes for a good story. But is it actually true?
Theodosius I did issue a series of edicts against pagan sacrifice in the years A.D. 391-392. These have been preserved in a collection of laws known as the Theodosian Code, which was compiled in the fifth century A.D. by the emperor’s grandson. An excerpt from one of these edicts states:
No person at all … shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city. He shall not, by more secret wickedness, venerate his lar with fire, his genius with wine, his penates with fragrant odours; he shall not burn lights to them, place incense before them, or suspend wreaths for them.
Neither this passage, nor any of the other edicts in the Theodosian Code, actually mentions the abolition of the Olympic Games, as the historian Ingomar Weiler has pointed out. Sacrifices and libations to the gods had long been a part of the ancient Olympics, as with other Greek festivals. But the evidence suggests that sacrifices had largely ceased to take place at these events by the mid-fourth century as a result of changes in religious practices.
The games at Olympia remained popular throughout the Roman period, with athletes competing both for their personal fame and for glory for their home city. A recently discovered inscription listing victorious athletes demonstrates that the games were still going strong through to Theodosius I’s reign. The court poet Claudian then refers to the Olympics in A.D. 399, after the emperor’s death.
The most conclusive evidence of the games’ survival after Theodosius I issued his ban on sacrifice can be found in the work of an anonymous literary commentator. He states that the Olympics ceased to be held in the fifth century A.D., during the reign of Theodosius I’s grandson, Theodosius II (A.D. 408-450):
Since the Temple of Olympian Zeus had caught fire, both the Elean festival and the Olympic Games came to an end.
Olympic festivals (named after the original games at Olympia) continued to take place elsewhere in the Roman empire as well. The Olympics at Ephesus are attested until A.D. 420, and they continued at Antioch in Syria until the early sixth century A.D. Even though public entertainments were often criticised by Christian clerics, a prominent Christian senator, Leontios, intended to stage his own Olympics in Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century A.D. He would not have dared to do this if the imperial administration had banned such festivals.
What did cause the games at Olympia to end in the fifth century A.D.? Archaeological evidence shows that the site and the infrastructure for the contests (such as the buildings used to house athletes) fell into disuse. The statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the world, was removed from the temple and taken to Constantinople. The workshop of Phidias, who built the statue, was converted into a church. This evidence suggests a gradual decline and re-appropriation of the space at Olympia.
The historian Sofie Remijsen has argued that the end of the games was not the result of an imperial edict against paganism, but a change in economic circumstances. Long-term developments in the administration of the empire during the fourth century A.D. meant that rich elites increasingly had to sponsor contests out of their own pockets, and the civic funds set up to support the games were used for other purposes. The contests at Olympia ended because no one could afford it. Such a fate may eventually befall the modern games, as spiralling costs make hosting the Olympics an unattractive proposition.
Let the games continue
The notion that Theodosius I banned the Olympics has quite a history. Back in the 11th century, the Byzantine author Georgius Cedrenus cited the now familiar story of the ban, but it came back into the popular imagination with the advent of the modern Olympic Games under the auspices of Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century.
De Coubertin, a French aristocrat, had an inherent belief in the “character-building” capacity of sport. Alongside English educator William Penny Brookes, he formed a committee with a mission to restore the Olympic Games to their former glory, minus tripods, incense, and sacrifices. Athens was the place and 1896 was the year. Following the games, de Coubertin reflected upon his achievement in Century Illustrated Magazine:
It was a thrilling moment. Fifteen hundred and two years before, the Emperor Theodosius had suppressed the Olympic games, thinking, no doubt, that in abolishing this hated survival of paganism he was furthering the cause of progress; and here [opening the games] was a Christian monarch, amid the applause of an assemblage composed almost exclusively of Christians, announcing the formal annulment of the imperial decree; while a few feet away stood the archbishop of Athens, and Père Didon, the celebrated Dominican preacher, who, in his Easter sermon in the Catholic cathedral the day before, had paid an eloquent tribute to pagan Greece.
De Coubertin highlights a problem: for centuries newspapers, periodicals, and literature had propagated the belief that pagan practices, including the Olympics, had rightly been stamped out by the rise and spread of Christianity. Yet the modern Olympic founder was taking pleasure not only in the fact that the games had been revived but also that a Dominican preacher (who was, incidentally, also the inventor of the Olympic motto) had paid tribute to pagan Greece.
The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in de Coubertin’s wider modern Olympic message, which itself was based on an idealised version of Classical Greece. However critically Greek and Roman paganism were viewed, the status of Classical Greece as the home of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had always confirmed its place at the centre of European education. For physical educationalists such as de Coubertin, nothing topped the pinnacle of the Olympic Games, Greece’s oldest and most popular sporting event.
The key was to adapt the games to “the needs and taste of the age”. This meant no more trappings of religious cult. Thus, when Père Didon praised “pagan Greece”, it was as the home of “beauty, grace, and strength all in one” (de Coubertin’s words); the perfect, philosophical place to educate the energetic youth of any era.
Ending with a whimper not a bang
Ultimately, the blame for ending the Olympic Games was laid at the feet of Theodosius I because it was difficult for people to believe that the festival – a defining cultural symbol of antiquity – simply fizzled out after more than a thousand years. The conflict between paganism and Christianity in the later Roman empire became an easy way of explaining the end of this great athletic contest.
By the time de Coubertin came to revive the Olympics in the 19th century, this story was set in stone. In restaging the games in a modern world, he drew inspiration from the athleticism of the Classical Greeks, but left the pagan rituals of the ancient world far behind.
Last November, I ran my first marathon, the “Athens Authentic”. I did it mainly because I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the world’s first marathon runner – the ancient Athenian messenger Pheidippides.
The story, as I knew it, went as follows. After their victory over a Persian invasion force at the border village of Marathon, the Athenians sent a messenger called Pheidippides to deliver the news to the city authorities. After running the 42 kilometres back to Athens, Pheidippides gasped “we’ve won!” (nenikēkamen) and promptly died of exhaustion.
It’s a great story, but was it true? The more I looked into it in the weeks leading up to the race, the less certain I was. Was I about to run 42km for a lie?
Different sources and different stories
Our best source for the events of 490 BC, the fifth-century historian Herodotus, doesn’t mention a messenger being sent from Marathon after the battle. He does say, though, that a runner called Pheidippides (or Philippides, in some manuscripts) was sent to Sparta to ask for help before the battle.
This trip is commemorated in the Spartathlon, a 246km event that I haven’t run – and never will.
Our next-oldest source is the fourth-century-BC intellectual Heraklides Pontikos. He apparently did mention a Marathon runner, but gave his name as Thersippos – at least according to the first-century-AD moralist Plutarch.
Plutarch himself is the earliest author to tell the story of a messenger from Marathon dying from exhaustion after proclaiming victory. But his messenger is called Eukles – and his dying word is nikōmen (we win).
The first time we hear this story with a messenger called Pheidippides (or Philippides) is in Lucian, and by that time we’re in the second century AD, around 600 years after the Battle of Marathon. The runner says nikōmen in that version too.
What to make of the different sources
Herodotus was closest in time to the events. And since he does tell the story of Pheidippides’ run to Sparta and back, he would surely have added in the story of the runner’s death if he had known about it.
But if Pheidippides didn’t run the first marathon, did someone else?
Our next candidate is Eukles, the name Plutarch tells us is given to the Marathon runner by the majority of historians. But here there’s an important detail: Eukles, according to Plutarch, ran from the battle “warm, with his weapons”.
If that’s right, Eukles would have run the first marathon after fighting for three hours or so in a desperate battle for his city’s survival. Not only that, but he would have done so bearing the traditional arms and armour of a Greek hoplite (heavy infantryman): spear, shield, helmet and (if he could afford it) breastplate. The whole panoply would have weighed ten or 20 kilograms, up to about one-third of the body weight of the average classical Greek.
Needless to say, this is something else I haven’t done.
Where does this leave Thersippos, the name given by Heraklides Pontikos?
It’s possible, as the Greek historian Christos Dionysopoulos has suggested, that there was a second runner, sent out the morning after the battle when the Athenians realised the Persians that they had pushed back onto their ships could simply use them to sail down the coast and attack Athens through its traditional harbour. That second runner may have been Thersippos.
But the strategic situation they were in was probably clear to the Athenians even as the battle ended. Someone would have to get to Athens before the Persians did, to reassure the populace that the Athenian army was still standing – and hence that there was no reason to surrender the city to the Persians.
They also needed to signal to any would-be defectors to the Persian side that it was the Athenians who were still calling the shots in Athens.
Eukles’ announcement of an Athenian victory – perhaps with his final breath – would have gone part of the way to achieving these goals.
But to really reassure people, and send a strong signal to potential “Medizers” (Persian sympathizers), the army would need to make an appearance in person. So, the Athenian hoplites, fresh from the most important battle of their lives, marched the 40km or so back to Athens, just in time to scare off the Persian fleet, which finally headed back to Persia.
Like Eukles, the Athenian hoplites would have had to bring along their weapons, both because these were valuable possessions and because they needed them to intimidate the Persians. Unlike Eukles, the Athenians probably didn’t run.
The British historian N.G.L. Hammond reckoned they could have walked the distance in six or seven hours – which is not that much longer than it took me to run it.
How long was it, really?
Speaking of the distance, what was it exactly?
I ran 42,195 metres, the standard length for a marathon, and I felt every metre afterwards. But if that was the distance that Eukles ran, why does the modern race make you run a 2km diversion around the burial monument of the Athenians?
The answer is because the modern marathon distance is only loosely based on the distance Eukles ran. The modern distance comes from the 1908 London Olympics, where competitors ran from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium, and then a bit further along the track to finish in front of the royal box.
The 1908 race was thus longer than the first Olympic marathon run in 1896. That course was 40km, the distance between the village of Marathon and the Panathenaic Stadium, where I finished my race.
The annual Athens “authentic” marathon didn’t begin until 1972. By that point 42,195 metres had long become the standard distance. That’s why I had the wonderful opportunity of running 2km extra around the tomb of the Athenians.
So, where did this all leave me as I trudged up the road from Marathon to Athens? (“Up”, by the way, is very much the right word.)
I wasn’t following in the footsteps of Pheidippides – thankfully, since his run to Sparta and back was much longer than the one I was doing. I might have been following in the footsteps of a man named Thersippos, but I was most likely retracing the steps of one called Eukles, albeit without carrying one-third of my body weight in armour.
But something else occurred to me as I eventually slowed to a walk for part of the course. I may have been doing so because I was tired, but I was also making my journey more similar to that of the Athenian hoplites in 490 BC. They walked briskly, after defeating an absolutist invasion force that was seeking to crush their nascent democracy.
Some 2,500 years later, I run-walked slowly over the same ground, unarmed and without a worry on my mind except the next research deadline. And that was good enough for me.