Olympians Were Weighted to Win (776 BC – 393 AD)

By: The Scribe on Saturday, July 21, 2007

Ancient Olympic long jumpWhile long jumpers at the modern Olympics have the advantage of a running start before their jump, athletes in ancient Greece did things a little differently. They started their jump with both feet flat on the ground – but with a weight in each of their hands. These weights were called halteres , and their shape and size are visible on a number of vase paintings that survive from ancient Greece.

How could a heavy weight possibly help an athlete jump further? The technique was to swing both arms backward and forward before the jump, slowly gaining momentum, with the arms thrust forward at takeoff. This would allow the jumper to propel himself into the air with more force – after all, leg muscles actually become more efficient when contracting against a load. The result could be likened to a springboard effect.

With their weight shifted upward at the beginning of the jump, the athlete would then need to shift his center of mass in midair – he would thrust the halteres back behind him, and possibly even let go just before landing. This would allow his feet to push forward just a bit further, which is what counts in the long jump: where your heels land is where your distance is measured.

Oylmpic jumperThe weights were made out of stone or lead, and could weigh anywhere between 2 and 9 pounds, depending on the size and arm length of the athlete. They were carefully carved to provide maximum comfort when gripping the weights, and each long jumper probably had at least two sets, in case one broke when thrown back.

During the 18th Olympics in 708 BC, the role of long jumping was altered somewhat, and instead of being included as an event on its own, it was incorporated into the pentathlon. In 656 BC, although he didn’t necessarily win the entire pentathlon, a man named Chionis of Sparta earned the ancient long jump record at 7 meters and 5 centimeters – and that’s without a running start! If he had completed this jump during modern times, Chionis’ feat would have won him the long jump title at the modern Olympics in 1896, and placed in the top ten at another 8 Olympic summer games.

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