In many ways, the long jump of the Ancient Greek Pentathlon, held during the games at Olympus, was very similar to the event in today’s modern Olympic competitions. Just as they do today, jumpers in the ancient games would land their jumps in a raked sandpit… or did they? Some historians suggest that rather than having a fifteen meter long sandpit, the area was simply a section of track dug up for the event that would be covered over afterward.
What we do know is that the long jump was considered one of the hardest events at the ancient games, due to the great deal of skill involved in completing the jump. Unlike modern jumpers who are able to take a long running start, the event in Ancient Greece only gave jumpers a short running start and they had to jump once they reached a target board at the front of the pit.
Jumpers also carried stone or lead weights in each hand, called halteres. These weights were forward at the beginning of the jump and then backward at the height of the jump, thereby increasing the athlete’s momentum and changing their center of gravity. The jumper could then stretch his legs outward and forward to increase the final distance!
Because of the skill and precision involved in completing the jump, we know that flute music was often played during this portion of the Pentathlon so that athletes could use the music’s rhythm to help with getting into the right movement rhythm with the halteres.
Some scholars have tried to recreate the ancient long jump as a multiple jump—where the athlete would take three or five jumps in a row across the landing area—based on a claim from one ancient source that says a man named Phayllos of Kroton, one of the greatest long jumpers in ancient history, made a 55 foot long jump (16.5 meters) in his event. Now, considering that the landing areas were only about 15 feet long—and most trained athletes have difficulty jumping more than three meters in one standing jump—the thought is that the jumps must have been multiple and the total counted as the final distance.
That said… no one can say for sure either way how this event was run, but what’s perhaps more important is the fact that this is one more event that has stood the test of time. Several thousand years later, we’re still cheering on long jumpers in the Olympics every few years!