Doping at the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece


Discobolus at the National Roman Museum. Credit: Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikipedia Commons

Doping in sport dates back to Antiquity and the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. Since the competition began in 776 BC, historians have written about the substances used by athletes to improve their performance.

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

Grecian Delight supports Greece

Even in 700 BC, there was a realization that an increase in testosterone would increase performance. Without syringes or hormones in liquid form for injection, athletes were left to gorge themselves on the hearts and testicles of animals in search of power.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a 1st century Greek physician, once spoke about the supposedly healthy effects of such ingestion:

“Because it is the sperm, when it possesses vitality, which makes us men, warm, well armed in the limbs, well expressed, lively, strong to think and act. … But if a man is continent in the seed show, he is bold, daring and strong as wild beasts, as the athlete who is continent proves. … The vital sperm therefore contributes to health, strength, courage and generation.

Galen, another prominent ancient Greek physician, reportedly prescribed “the hind hooves of an Abyssinian donkey, crushed, boiled in oil and flavored with rose hips and rose petals” for a performance enhancing tonic.

During the Olympic Games of the 3rd century BC. Philostratus reported that doctors were of significant help in preparing athletes for the games and that the cooks made bread with pain relieving properties.

In the first century AD, it was also reported that Greek runners drank an herbal drink to increase their strength and be able to compete in long-lasting events.

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

Doping was punished at the ancient Olympics in Greece

If athletes were caught cheating on the former Olympic Hames in Greece, they were punished for their offense. They were banned from the games and their names were often carved in stone and placed in a path that led to the stadium.

To this day, stone pedestals line the entrance to the Olympic Stadium in Olympia, Greece, site of the ancient Olympic Games (776 BC. During these games, the pedestals supported zanes, bronze statues of Zeus grandeur nature.

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

Cheaters have been banned for life from competing in games. The name of the offending athlete, his transgression and the names of his family members are inscribed on each pedestal. The statues also served as a warning to athletes of the time who had to pass them to enter the stadium to compete in front of 40,000 spectators.

Today, you could say that as long as there were prizes and awards given to the winners, perhaps victory by all means was the sole goal of many athletes. Perhaps lofty ideas such as fair play or the great Olympic spirit could be romantic notions from later eras, as people tend to idealize the past.

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


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