Ancient Olympic pentathlon

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 with the stadion (a short foot race), followed by the javelin throw, discus throw, and long jump (the order of these three events is still unclear), and ending with wrestling. While Pentathletes were considered to be inferior to the specialized athletes in a certain event, they were superior in overall development and were some of the most well balanced of all the athletes.[1] Their training was often part of military service—each of the five events was thought to be useful in battle.

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 event was first held at the 18th Ancient Olympiad around 708 BC,[2] 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.[3]

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".[4]

Every four years when Olympic games occurred, there was the "Olympic truce". This was an agreement that all the city states agreed on. At this time there was an organized truce between all the cities involved in the games. This was done to give families and people the safety needed to travel long distance to the games. This truce was known as "Ekecheiria".[5]


Gymnasium scene: athlete holding a javelin; next to him, a mattock to soften the soil of the jumping pit; jumping weights and a sponge bag hang on the wall. Attic red-figure cup, c. 490 BC

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.

The javelin, like the discus, was thrown for length, but in addition there was a second section of it where they threw for accuracy. The javelin was a lighter, longer version of a war spear. The "ekebolon" was the event won by distance. The "stochastikon" was the event based on accuracy.[6]

The javelin throw used a leather strap, called an amentum, rather than having the athlete grip the shaft of the javelin itself. 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.

In the discus throw the athlete must throw a solid bronze disc. They usually weighed around nine pounds, although varied in size. They took the longest distance out of five throws.

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.

Wrestling was the fifth and last event of the Pentathlon. To win, one had to wrestle the opponent to the ground. Different from modern day wrestling where the entire back must be touching, any part of the back can touch to become the victor.

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.


It is unclear how a winner was chosen, but there are many theories that circulate. The first, and most unlikely, is that in order to be proclaimed the victor, a competitor must win all five of the events. This method is impractical, for the prize would have hardly ever been awarded. Another hypothesis is that perhaps an athlete who was victorious in just three events, was declared the overall winner. One of the more common theories is that only a certain number of competitors would qualify for the final event, wrestling, based on their performance in the previous four events. Ultimately, the victor of wrestling would be deemed the champion of the entire pentathlon.[7]

Further reading


  1. Gardiner, Norman. Athletics in the Ancient World. Mineola, New York: Dove Publications INC.
  2. Notations on the 1920 discus stamps at the Olympic Museum. International Olympic Committee. Retrieved on 2009-08-03.
  3. Waldo E. Sweet, Erich Segal (1987). Sport and recreation in ancient Greece. Oxford University Press. (p37). Retrieved on 2009-08-03.
  4. Ancient Olympic Events; Pentathlon. Perseus digital library. Retrieved on 2009-08-03.
  5. "Olympic Games Medals, Results, Sports, Athletes | Medailles, Resultats, Sports et Athletes des Jeux Olympiques". Retrieved 2015-12-14.
  6. "Ancient Sports: Pentathlon". Retrieved 2015-12-14.
  7. Gardiner, Norman. Athletics in the Ancient World. Mineola, New York: Dove Publications INC.