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Doping in Ancient Greece

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 when banned substances were used by athletes to enhance their performance in the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. Since the inception of the competition in 776 BC, historians have written about substances used by athletes for this purpose.

References about specialists providing Olympic athletes with nutritional supplements 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 up to the athletes to gorge on animal hearts and testicles in search of potency.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a first 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” as a performance-enhancing tonic.

During the Olympic Games in the 3rd century BC, athletes attempted to boost their performance using mushrooms. Philostratus reported that doctors were significantly helpful in athletes’ preparation for the games while cooks prepared bread with analgesic properties.

In the 1st century AD, Greek runners consumed an herbal beverage to be at peak performance during endurance events.

Athletes drank “magic” potions and consumed exotic meats in the hopes of gaining an athletic edge on their competition. Dried figs, wine potions, herbal medications, strychnine, and hallucinogens were likewise common performance enhancers.

Doping was punished at the ancient Olympic Games in Greece

If athletes were caught cheating through the use of substances in the hopes of enhancing their performance at ancient Olympic Games in Greece, they were punished. They were essentially banned from competing, and their names were often engraved in stone and placed in a pathway leading up to the stadium. In this way, their transgression became publicly known.

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

Zanes were placed there not in honor of the great athletes of the time. Instead, their purpose was to punish, in perpetuity, athletes who violated Olympic policies.

Cheaters were banished for life from competing in the Olympic Games. Inscribed on each pedestal would be the offending athlete’s name, his transgression, and the names of family members. Statues also served as a reminder to athletes of the day they would have to pass them on their way into the stadium to compete before forty thousand spectators.

Nowadays, one might say that victory by any means might have been the sole purpose of athletes in the ancient Games, especially when prizes and awards were handed over to the winners. Fair play and possessing the right Olympic spirit may have only become important notions in later eras, but, of course, society often tends to idealize the past.

What is certain is that the stakes in such a prestigious international athletic competition continue to be high, and doping is likely to remain the most taboo part of the Olympic Games.

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