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Doping in Ancient Greece Olympic Games

Doping ancient Greece Olympic Games
Discobolus in National Roman Museum. Credit: Livioandronico2013 , CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia Commons

Doping in sports goes as far back as ancient times and the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. Since the inception of the competition in 776 BC, historians have written about substances used by athletes to boost their performance.

References about specialists giving Olympic athletes nutritional ingredients to enhance their physical performance abound.

Even in 700 BC there was an awareness that heightened testosterone would increase performance. With no syringes or hormones in injectable liquid form, it was left to the athletes to gorge on animal hearts and testicles in search of potency.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a 1st century ancient Greek physician, once opined on the purportedly salubrious effects of such ingestion:

“For it is the semen, when possessed of vitality, which makes us to be men, hot, well braced in limbs, well voiced, spirited, strong to think and act. … But if any man be continent in the emission of semen, he is bold, daring, and strong as wild beasts as is proved from such of the athlete as are continent. … Vital semen, then, contributes to health, strength, courage, and generation.”

Galen, another prominent ancient Greek physician, is said to have prescribed “the rear hooves of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil, and flavored with rose hips and rose petals” for a performance-enhancing tonic.

During the Olympic Games in the Third Century BC, athletes were trying to boost their performance using mushrooms. Philostratus reported that doctors were significantly helpful in athletes’ preparation for the games and cookers prepared bread with analgesic properties.

In the First Century AD, it was also reported that the Greek runners were drinking a herbal beverage to increase their strength and to be capable of competing in long duration events.

Athletes were also known to drink “magic” potions and eat exotic meats in the hopes of gaining an athletic edge on their competition. Dried figs, wine potions, herbal medications, strychnine and hallucinogens were also used.

Doping was punished at the ancient Olympic Games in Greece

If athletes were caught cheating at the ancient Olympic Hames in Greece, they were punished for their offence. They were banned from the games and their names were often engraved into stone and placed in a pathway that led to the stadium.

To this day, stone pedestals line the entranceway to the Olympic stadium in Olympia, Greece, site of the ancient Olympics (776 BC-394 AD). During these games the pedestals supported zanes, bronze life-size statues of Zeus.

Zanes were placed there not to honor the great athletes of the time, but to punish, in perpetuity, athletes who violated Olympic rules.

Cheats were banished for life from competing in the games. Inscribed on each pedestal is the offending athlete’s name, his transgression, and the names of family members. The statues also served as a warning to athletes of the day who had to pass them on their way into the stadium to compete before 40,000 spectators.

Today, one would say that as long as prizes and awards were given to the winners, maybe victory by any means was the sole purpose of many athletes. Maybe noble ideas such as fair play or the great Olympic spirit might be romantic notions of later eras, as people have a tendency to idealize the past.

What is certain though is that as long as the stakes are high, doping in the Olympics is more likely to remain as the disagreeable part of the games.

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