09 October, 2013

On the ancient pentathlon

Frank Zarnowski, the decathlon specialist, published recently a book on the Pentathlon of antiquity. It is a thorough study of this, typically greek, sport. Zarnowski even argues that the only two really new sports introduced by the Greeks were the pentathlon and the pankration.

The book makes also a point of how it does not suffice to be an eminent professor of archeology in order to talk sensibly about things of the past. One cannot draw conclusions, given the scant material available on the ancient pentathlon, without some knowledge of athletics. If anyone is interested in the details, the book of Zarnowski is really worth reading.

Everybody agrees on the content of the ancient pentathlon; the data are unambiguous on this. The five events are discus throw, long jump, javelin throw, stadium race (192 m in Olympia) and wrestling. What people do not agree on is the order. Still there seems to be a consensus that wrestling is the last event and the stadium race the one before. Zarnowski supports this idea and argues, quite convincingly, that the order of the first three should be: discus, jump and javelin. To my eyes this is the most natural order (and the only acceptable variant would be to permute discus and javelin).

Where things get really interesting is when it comes to determining the winner. Zarnowski gives an exhaustive list of the absurdities that have been proposed over the years and then presents his own theory. While I find the latter quite plausible I would like in this post to present an alternative, and to my eyes simpler, theory. 

At the issue of the three events (to which everybody participates) there exist three possibilities. Either somebody has won all three events, in which case he is the winner of the pentathlon, or one athlete has won two events and some other one event, or, finally, three athletes have won one event each. In the second case the two winners proceed to the stadium race. If the one with two victories wins again he is the champion. Not having to proceed to the wrestling, were the athletes will end up covered with dust, a victory after three or four events is one known as a victory ακονιτί (not covered with dust). If the race results in a situation where the two athletes have two victories each they proceed naturally to the wrestling which gives the final winner.

The difficulty is when after the three events we have three athletes with one victory each. Clearly they must compete in a stadium race but here is where Zarnowski and myself diverge. Zarnowski proposes that the second and third of this race run again and the winner of this classification race meets the initial winner for the wrestling competition.
Whoever wins the wrestling is the pentathlon winner. I find this solution unnecessarily complicated. I do not object to the fact that in the end the two athletes may have two victories each (one in the first three events and a victory in the stadium race and in wrestling respectively) and, despite this, the title of pentathlon champion goes to one of them, namely the winner of wrestling. After all the last event is there in order to designate the pentathlon champion. I just find the second race superfluous. The judges who are able to give the winner of a race, can very well, in a race with just three contestants, identify the one who arrives last. Thus my theory is that the stadium race is  there in this case in order to eliminate one athlete and let the remaining two proceed to the final event. The difference of my theory with the one of Zarnowski is minute but still one race less is something that appeals in my spirit of parsimony.


I sent an email to F. Zarmowski telling him about this idea of mine. He replied immediately and here is his answer

Dear Basil,
  Yes, I find this entirely plausible and just as likely as my suggestion.....in a sense A finishes 1st, B 2nd and C 3rd in the race and it is as if B and C were running an individual event and B would gain his "second victory." I think this is just as likely a solution as mine, maybe even more likely. When I first considered it I dismissed it b/c of the Greeks focus on "winning", but you have made a very good point and I should have given it more thought. Thanks for making me aware of it.
Frank Zarnowski

This confirms what I already knew, namely that F. Zarnowski does really know what he is talking about. However thanks to this correspondence I learned that he is also a very nice person.

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