Sports engineering is 2,300 years old

This week was awe-inspiring: I helped set up a 2,300 year old starting gate in an even older stadium with the Indiana-Jones character who discovered it (Prof Stephen Miller) and then raced bare-foot in a modern recreation of the Nemean Games (established 573 BC).

Hysplex start
Figure 1. Runners preparing themselves on the two and a half thousand  year old starting line with a reconstruction of the starting gate that was retrofitted after the catapult was invented.  The judge behind prepares to whip anyone who false starts.

Construction of a 2,300 year old starting gate

Sport has always been an early adopter when it comes to technology.  The catapult was invented around the 4th Century BC as a weapon of war and was used not long after to drive starting gates in athletics.  Catapults used wooden bows to project missiles long distances: the early bows were replaced by more powerful torsion catapults which used the efficient force-generating capabilities of twisted sinew and hair.

Figure 2.  Construction of the catapult for the hysplex (starting gate).

The games at Nemea were one of the 4 ‘grand-slam’ events in ancient Greece, the principal one being the Olympic Games and the others those held at Corinth and Delphi.  The starting gate at these games was called a hysplex and the one at Nemea was retro-fitted to the original starting line (the balbis) which consisted of a stone sill across the track (Figures 1 and 2).  Each lane had its own vertical post 65 mm square which originally slotted into a lead lined square hole in the balbis.   The wooden posts were kept wetted to make them expand against the lead lining and keep them secure (an interference fit in modern engineering parlance).  The torsion of this modern replica was provided by 6 lengths of sisal rope rather than sinew or hair: the bottom end of the lever arm of the hysplex was slotted through the ropes with 3 either side so that when they were twisted using the torsion arm, they would force the lever to rotate to the floor about the axis of the rope (see Figures 2 and 3).

Hysplex go
Figure 3. The catapult has been released and slams to the floor, taking with it the two ropes stretching across the runners.
Entrance tunnel
Figure 4.  Entering the stadium through the 36 m long tunnel (complete with ancient graffiti).

The race

Now to try it out in a real race.  I was nervous.  It’s run barefoot and, while the ancients ran naked and glistening in oil, we preserved our modesty by wearing a chiton – a short tunic worn in ancient Greece.  Just a bit of fun, I thought when I signed up, but the preparations for the race had cranked up the tension.  Would I false start, trip over the cords when I started and get a whipping by the judges?  Would it hurt running barefoot on the rough clay soil?  Would I embarrass my family sitting in the stands and fall over in the funny tunic?  Could I perhaps even win and get that prestigious garland of wild celery?

My name was called at the entrance to the stadium and I entered the apodyterion (the ancient locker room) with my 11 competitors for race #13 (52 year old males).  We dressed in our chitons and applied modest amounts of olive oil to our bodies from the abyrallos, the small ball-shaped jugs hanging in the apodyterion.

The herald took us a short way to the 36 m long tunnel to the stadium where we held an arm in the air and swore an an oath to compete fairly and honestly.  We were led down the tunnel and then paused waiting for our names to be annoucend next to the graffiti carved by real athletes from over 2,000 years ago.  “Niko – I win”, proclaimed one.  “Akrotatos is cute”, wrote another.  “To the guy who wrote it”, responded a rival.

At the starting line, we drew lots for our lanes from a bronze helmet.  I drew Beta and glancing nervously down the track, I noticed that my lane was already cut up after the previous day’s storms – I’d have to be careful.

The starting position was unlike the crouch of today and we stood with our feet in the parallel grooves of the balbis, the left foot slightly forward of the right and our arms stretched out forwards as if we were about to dive into a pool.

The catapult arms to the left and right of the track were  pulled upwards and the cords rose in front of us.  A short rope linked the chunky main column to the top of the catapult arm with a pull-rope stretched back to the starter.  His task was to pull it with a jerk to release the trigger and the hysplex, which would slam to the floor and start the race.

Steve's race 2
Figure 5.  My race in the Nemean Games 2016 (bald guy in the middle of the 1st frame).


Toeing the line

I’d helped set up the hysplex the previous day and trialled it a few times so knew the routine.  The starter would hold the two ropes attached to the trigger and shout the following:

poda para poda          foot by foot

ettime                          ready

apete                           GO!

and jerk the ropes to release the triggers of the catapult.  What could possibly go wrong?

I heard poda para poda but didn’t quite hear ettime and was still waiting for it when the starter shouted apete!  I didn’t have to worry about a false start as I stood there lamely wondering what was going on while everyone darted forwards.  Post-race analysis shows  my reaction time as a massive 1 second (compare this to Usain Bolt’s 0.2 second).

By the time I started running, everyone else was 1-2 paces ahead.  I began to accelerate and realised that the ground wasn’t hard at all, it was lovely and soft and…slippy.  Evidently it was still not quite dry the previous day’s rains but, no matter, by 60 m I overtook my immediate neighbours, and by 80 m I’d just about caught the front runner a couple of lanes to my right.

Then I hit a darker patch of ground.  My left heel slid forwards where I expected firmness and the muscle in my hamstring pinged like a broken guitar string.  I limped the last four agonising strides and came in 3rd (fittingly agony comes from agon, Greek for contest).

You can watch me run (with family in support) here.

Ancient Greek Sports Technology

Fairness in sport in Ancient Greece was all important and making sure that everyone started at the same time was one way to ensure this.  The original stone starting block at Nemea was changed as technology evolved with the invention of the new catapult.  Even more complex gates were created at other stadia with individual doorways for each competitor to pass through, and the catapult-driven-trap sliding vertically in the doorframe.  This shows us that, where sport is concerned, all civilisations like to use the latest technologies and latest materials (even if they are sinew, stone and rope).

The events in Ancient Greece evolved too as the desire for entertainment and new competitions grew (particularly after the Romans had invaded).  Eventually there were long distance races, the pentathlon and, the most technical of sports, chariot racing.

This begs the following question – how will our modern Olympic Games evolve as performance reaches its inevitable plateau?  Will we include the the modern equivalent of chariot racing, Formula 1?  Or perhaps we’ll be a bit more nostalgic and look back in time and choose events from the ancient games in Greece such as those at Nemea.

Racing in armour anyone?

Figure 6.  The hoplitodromos or racing in armour – more of a demonstration event but still taken rather seriously.







About stevehaake

Steve is Professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University. He has a degree in Physics from the University of Leeds and a PhD from Aston University on the mechanics of golf balls on golf greens. He has over 200 publications, including his first book "Advantage Play: Technologies that changed Sporting History" due out in October 2018.