Ultra Race - Delphi - Olympia - 255 kms

The Origin Of Foot Races In Ancient Greece

During the prehistoric and the historic period, athletic contests were  in the epicenter of ancient Greeks’ life. The “competitions” drew their origin from man’s inherent tendency to surpass everybody else’s achievements by peaceful means and be distinguished.

For the ancient Greeks the foot race was the  outstanding contest. Homer, citing Achilles, says he was “a swift footed man” and qualifies this ability as the most important physical achievement.

Plato  {The Laws,A,6} states as the first three virtues “health, beauty and  running strength”. The ability in running was honorable and precious  for a young man not only during contests but also as a warrior at war. In ancient Greece, citizens were divided into “fast runners” and those who “could not run at all” on the basis of their ability to run.  

The origin of foot-races’ contests goes back to the mythological era and many of these races had been established after kings and heroes had been the first to compete in them.. A myth says Apollo beat Hermes in a foot-race in Olympia and another one relates that Endymion, king of Pisa {near Olympia}, held running contests among his three sons in order to decide who would succeed him to the throne. The impact of running contests was such that during the first 14 Olympic Games, the “stadion”, a foot-race of 192,27m long, equal to the length   of the Olympic Stadium, was the only contest to be held and maintained.

Famous runners in Ancient Greece were Koroibos from Elis, the first winner ever in the Olympic Games, Argias,  Phidippides, Euchidas, Leonidas  of Rhodes, Hermogenes, etc.

Ancient  Greeks were always in search of various opportunities  to hold contests of all kinds which would always  include foot racing events.

Thus we have the four Pan-Hellenic Games, namely, Pythia, Isthmia, Nemea and the Olympic Games.

Pythia were held at Delphi in honour of Apollo, Isthmia were held to commemorate the death of the little boy Malikertis, who fell into the sea of Megara with his mother and drowned. Nemea to honour the infant Opheltis who died from a snake’s bite, and the greatest of all the Olympic Games which were held every four years in Olympia in honour of Zeus.

Additionally, epitaph contests were also held to honour dead kings or heroes.
Homer in the 23rd Rhapsody gives full account of contests including
running events too, in honour of Patroclos, Achilles best friend
killed in the Trojan war.

Hercules held a foot-race contest among his five brothers in Olympia, thus instituting the forerunner of the Olympic Games. The victor would be crowned with an olive tree wreath made by Hercules himself.

On a different scale, a reason to hold a running competition was the marrying of a sovereign’s daughter. The husband-to-be would be the
winner in such a competition.
Here are some examples:

Icarius King of Sparta, in his wish to marry his daughter, the well- known Penelope, held a footrace contest and the victor was Ulysses, the Trojan War hero, who married Penelope. In a similar case Danaos, King of Argos had 50 daughters to marry. As they had murdered their previous husbands and nobody wanted to marry them, he held successive foot racing contests until he managed to marry them all. Also, Atalanti, the famous huntress not wishing to get married, called on every young man who wanted to marry her to compete with her in a foot race, ending either in his death or in his marriage to her. Till Ippomenes arrived, holding the golden apples,  goddess Aphrodite had given him. Ippomenes dropping the apples along the race route, made Atalanti stop to pick them up, she was, thus, delayed and Ippomenes won the race and married her.

This last myth has to do with a chariot racing between Oenomaos, King of Pisa and a number of young men who wished to marry his daughter, Ippodamea. He ordered them to compete in a chariot race with him and fearing  the oracle predicting his death from the hand of his future son-in-law, he used tricks to kill them all in the course of the racing.. Till Pelops arrived, Ippodamea fell in love with him, and using the same tricks  as her father did, killed her father and married Pelops who became King of Pisa, reinstituted the Olympic Games and gave his name to the Peloponnese.

Foot racing was the prevailing athletic contest throughout the ancient world as the speed of feet was a major privilege for a man to be distinguished, not only in the field of competition but also as a warrior at war.
A foot racing was also an event to determine various  issues in people’ every day life. Two persons in conflict held a foot -race  to solve their
differences  and the winner would be the one who was right too.

The importance bestowed upon  running competitions was such that a number of new foot races were added  to the Olympic Games so that a larger number  of swift-footed men could  be crowned  Olympian victors in Olympia.


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