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The Lost Sport of Olympia

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Most of you listening to this podcast will not believe the story I'm about to tell you. "How is it possible, " you will ask, [The Lost Sport of Ancient Olympia with Historian Eli Hunt] "that the greatest sport of all time "has been forgotten for almost 2,000 years?" I'm Eli Hunt and this is the Legend of the Lost Sport of Olympia. Our story begins with the discovery of Pyron’s Shard, a piece of broken clay found in 1873 in the tomb of an ancient Athenian merchant named Pyron. Historians don’t know much about Pyron, except that he was a patron of athletics who attended a number of the earliest recorded Olympic games. The painted shard, which dates to 740 BC, shows a footrace with the Olympic stadium in the background. It’s a common image from the era, and there would be nothing remarkable about it except for one very strange detail. On Pyron’s Shard, the Olympic runners are blindfolded. To the team of German archaeologists who find the shard, this detail is both exciting and confounding. There’s no record of a blindfolded sport at any time during the ancient Olympics. But before the team can convince historians of the shard’s significance, another much more dazzling archaeological finding captures the world’s attention. Just three days after Pyron’s shard is discovered, the great archeologist Heinrich Schliemann unearths Priam’s treasure at Troy. Compared to the majestic Jewels of Helen, the humble shard goes almost completely unnoticed. In fact, in the frenzy over Priam’s treasure, the shard is quietly sold to a private collector, and today its whereabouts are unknown. Although lost, the shard is not completely forgotten. In 1908, a young Austrian archaeologist named Mortiz Wach stumbles upon the journals of the German team that found the shard. Inspired by the possibility of an unknown Olympic sport, he goes to the site of an ancient gymnasium in Corinth to look for more evidence. After spending two months searching the ruins, Wach finally uncovers a clue. One of the stones used in the wall of the wrestling room is actually a reversed tablet, with the written side hidden and the blank side facing out. The tablet appears to be a training guide for an ancient Olympic sport that, in addition to basic physical conditioning, also prescribes complex exercises in memory and orienteering. Strangely, all sections that name the sport, or that describe it in detail, have been defaced. Wach is convinced that this sport is the same one depicted on Pyron’s Shard. But why would someone want to destroy all reference to it? Following a hunch, Wach travels to the island of Antikythera, where a few years earlier several prominent archaeological discoveries had been made. On the island, he unearths a plaque commemorating the victory of an ancient Olympian named Demetros in a sport that is referred to only as paignia aletheia megas -- the “most important game”. The plaque is dated the first year of the 153rd Olympiad, or 164 BC, a year for which historians have thorough documentation of the winners. Nowhere in any of our records is an athlete named Demetros ever mentioned. Wach is therefore certain that this athlete is connected to the mysterious blindfolded sport. He presents his research to the archeological community, but they accuse him of fabricating his findings to further his career. He is shamed into an early retirement, and the pieces of the story of the lost sport fade into obscurity. Until now. Over the last ten years, I’ve been researching Wach’s discoveries, and I believe them to be genuine. Using luminescence dating, I’ve determined that the Corinthian tablet was defaced during the time of ancient Greece. Were the Greeks responsible for destroying their own sacred documents? Why would they do that? The shard, the tablet, and the mysterious athlete all point to a sport that the Greeks revered above all others. Why isn’t it documented anywhere? Maybe it is. I have a theory that the evidence for the lost sport of Olympia has been hiding in plain sight for millennia. Diadoumenoi are Greek sculptures that show athletes binding their heads with a piece of cloth. They occur throughout ancient history, and we’ve long believed that the cloth represents victory. Maybe so, but isn’t it possible that the cloth is something else? Could it, for example, be a blindfold? If so, the athletes of the lost sport were among the most honored in all of ancient Greece. But if my theory is correct, this only deepens the mystery of Wach’s tablet. Why would the Greeks turn their backs on the most honored sport of all? We do know of other ancient Olympic sports that were abandoned over the centuries – for example, the hoplitodromos, a sprint in which the runners wore full-body armour, and the pankration, an extremely violent martial art that often resulted in the death of one of the competitors. But even after they ceased to play these sports, the Greeks never attempted to hide the fact that they once existed. And they never tried to prevent others from finding out exactly how they were played. And so we are left today with many more questions than answers. Was there really ever a lost sport? If so, how was it played? And why was it considered the most important of all ancient games? If the lost sport indeed existed, we can only assume that the ancient Greeks themselves conspired to hide it from the rest of the world. But what would make them go to such lengths to conceal it? Even with my new research, it’s much easier to say that Mortiz Wach was mistaken than it is to accept that everything we think we know about the ancient Olympics may be wrong. But if Wach is right, if the Greeks did hide the truth, then perhaps there are more clues out there for those of us who look closely enough.

Video Details

Duration: 6 minutes and 56 seconds
Country: UK
Language: English
Producer: Eli Hunt
Director: Eli Hunt
Views: 12,949
Posted by: ehunt on Feb 27, 2008

Is it possible that the greatest sport of all time has been forgotten for almost 2000 years?

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