Ancient Olympic pentathlon

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Museum replica of a bronze discus inscribed as a votive offering to Zeus by Asklepiades of Corinth, winner of the pentathlon in the 255th Olympiad (Glyptothek Munich, original in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia)

The Ancient Olympic pentathlon (Greek: πένταθλον) was an athletic contest at the Ancient Olympic Games, and other Panhellenic Games of Ancient Greece. The name derives from Greek, combining the words pente (five) and athlon (competition). Five events were contested over one day, starting long jump, javelin throw, and discus throw, followed by the stadion (a short foot race) and wrestling. Pentathletes were considered to be among the most skilled athletes, and their training was often part of military service—each of the five events was thought to be useful in battle. It was the first documented type of pentathlon, a competition composed of five distinct events, and was the precursor to all competitions of this type, to which it lends its name.


The event was first held at the 18th Ancient Olympiad around 708 BC,[1] and changed format a number of times. By the 77th Ancient Olympiad, the pentathlon was generally ordered into three sections: the triagmos of the long jump, javelin throw, and discus throw, the stadion foot race, and wrestling as the final event. The first three events were generally not held as individual events, but rather as only part of pentathlon competitions.[2]

It is unclear how a winner was chosen, but it has been suggested that the victor of all five events, or perhaps just three events, was declared the overall winner. Similarly, historians are uncertain as to how the wrestling event was competed and how victory was achieved.

The wide variety of skills needed to compete meant that pentathletes were held in high esteem as physical specimens: in Rhetoric, Aristotle remarked "a body capable of enduring all efforts, either of the racecourse or of bodily strength...This is why the athletes in the pentathlon are most beautiful".[3]


Wrestling was held in a sand pit, at the Olympic Games outside the Temple of Zeus, while the other events were all held in the stadion (or stadium) from which the name of the race was taken. Wrestling and the discus throw had essentially the same basic format as their modern versions (although the actual technique and rules may have differed). However, the discus throw was completed atop a raised podium, rather than on a level field.

The javelin throw used a leather strap, called an amentum, rather than having the athlete grip the shaft of the javelin itself. The stadion was a sprint of approximately 200 yards (or about 180 metres), longer than the modern 100 metres sprint, but shorter than all other ancient running events.

The long jump is perhaps the most unusual, compared to the modern athletics version. A long jumper used weights called halteres to propel himself farther out of standing, and his jump probably consisted of five separate leaps, more like the modern triple jump; otherwise, distances of known jumps (which are often as far as 50 feet) would seem to be impossible.

Competitors in the javelin and discus throws were allowed five throws each, and only their longest throw would count.The long jump was also attempted five times. In the classical games, it was traditional for all of these events to be performed naked.