Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why Pankration must be restored to the Olympics

The first modern summer Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, included events selected at the first Olympic Congress organized by French historian Pierre de Coubertin. Nearly all the events selected were modern sports actively practiced in countries in Europe and in the United States, but many with roots in the ancient games. (One exception was the Marathon, the idea for which was proposed for the Olympics by French philologist Michel Jules Alfred Breal as a way to capture the glory of ancient Greece.)

The Ancient Olympic Games, which started in 776 BC and lasted for nearly 12 centuries, included the following events throughout most of its history:

Stadion (a roughly 200-yard running race)

Diaulos (twice the distance of a stadion)

Dolichos (7 to 24 stadions)

Long jump



Pentathlon (long jump, javelin, discus, stadion and wrestling)




Hoplitodromos (medium-distance race run by athletes in armor)

Plus, a variety of horse races.

All the ancient human athletic events (as opposed to horse races) have direct modern equivalents except the Hoplitodromos. They're very familiar to us -- track and field, as well as wrestling and boxing. Ancient Olympians viewing the modern Olympics would recognize these events immediately.

There is a good reason why both Pankration and the Hoplitodromos were excluded from the founding of the modern Olympics: They had both long since disappeared as fully-functioning competitive sports. And Hoplitodromos is totally obsolete, as it involves running with bronze-age helmets, armor, shields and spears.

But over the past few decades, Pankration has staged a come-back.

What Is Pankration?

Pankration, which means "all powers," is roughly a combination of wrestling and boxing. It's the world's first "martial art," predating all known Asian martial arts by centuries. It may have even been practiced more than a millennium before the first Ancient Olympic Games.

Ancient Olympic Pankration had only two rules. No biting, and no gouging the eyes out. All Pankration athletes were pardoned preemptively for murder, should any of them kill opponents in the contest. Knockouts were common, but many Pankration matches went to the ground, where joint-locks, pins, body strikes and other moves were combined with choking. An athlete could raise his hand to the referee at any time to concede defeat.

Pankration was central to Spartan life. As in all things, the mastery of Olympic events in general, and Pankration in particular, were viewed as vital to military supremacy. Pankration made up a huge component of agoge education. In Sparta, Pankration was practiced with no rules. The Spartans prided themselves on their skill in the biting and eye gouging banned at the Olympics.

Hoplite warfare very often degenerated into chaos, with shields and weapons easily lost. Spartans were trained from childhood to kill without weapons, and defend without armor. This wasn't an academic exercise -- Pankration skill was one of the most important factors in the Spartan's many battlefield victories during the classical era -- including at Thermopylae and Plataea where Spartan-led armies saved Greece from conquest by the much larger Persian forces.

Why Pankration Must Be Restored to the Olympics

Simply put: Pakration is the only ancient Olympic sport that is growing and flourishing internationally in the modern world, but that's not included in the Olympics.

Martial arts tournaments around the world include sparring events. Mixed martial arts and Extreme Fighting are among the most popular spectator sports ever. These are all, more or less, Pankration. But one of the fastest growing sports in the world right now is Pankration itself.

Ancient Pankration has been modernized for safety. Practitioners in Greece and around the world are reviving Pankration with new teams and tournaments, new rules and regulations.

In fact, the United States Pankration Team triumphed in the 2009 Pankration World Championships in Siauliai, Lithuania, in early September.

So here we have a central sport to the Ancient Olympic Games. It has undergone an enormous resurgence outside the Modern Olympic Games. What's wrong with this picture?

The Olympics includes the Japanese martial art of Judo, and the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do -- both fairly modern inventions -- but not the Greek martial art. The original martial art. The Olympic martial art.

The International Olympics Committee reviews a wide range of submissions for new sports to be added to the Olympic Games. Pankration is different from all of these sports. Pankration should receive immediate and automatic inclusion in all future Olympic Games, starting with the London games in 2012.

The creation of the Modern Olympic Games more than 100 years ago was a profoundly European idea. But Europe itself probably would never have existed without Pankration. The ancient Spartans and the ancient Greeks used Pankration, among other skills and practices, to defeat invaders and defend Greece. And without Greece, there would have been no Roman Empire, no Europe, no Renaissance, and no Modern Olympic Games.

Pankration must be restored to the Olympic Games.