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Last Updated: Friday, 9 July, 2004, 10:01 GMT 11:01 UK
Academic recreates naked Olympics
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

Victory amphora from the ancient Games at Athens
Victory amphorae were the gold medals of their day
You wouldn't fancy trying it at Gateshead.

But the elite athletes of the ancient world, it seems, were made of sterner stuff.

Olympic runners took to the track without so much as a loincloth to protect their modesty.

Instead of "faster, higher, stronger", perhaps the motto should be "impractical, uncomfortable, unmentionable".

Not according to classicist Stephen Instone. The game-for-a-laugh academic forewent the benefits of clothing as he competed in a race against a group of professionals - all in the name of research.

His 100-metre sprint took place during the preparation of the BBC Two programme First Olympian, to be shown later this month.

Dr Instone, who bared all on Loughborough University campus despite the chill winds of winter, told BBC News Online: "If you are trying to recreate aspects of the ancient Olympics, when it comes to running you have got to run naked.

"I lined up with quite a few semi-international sprinters. I'm 49 and they were about half my age. They all had lycra on, while I had to run unencumbered.

"I just tried it to show you can run perfectly well naked. People these days say it's difficult from a practical point of view.

"At least I proved it could be done."

Naked cyclists
It might not be appropriate for all modern Olympic events
Dr Instone, a club runner himself, came last.

He did not record his time - as the ancient Greeks were also unable to do so - but finished without any adverse side effects.

He said: "Some academics think the Greeks did it to avoid getting too hot and, as they were notoriously unashamed of nudity, they felt they had nothing to hide.

'Not in Richmond'

"On the other hand, the Olympics were a religious occasion, dedicated to Zeus, king of the gods. Perhaps it was seen as purer to run naked."

Of his own run, Dr Instone said: "It was very cold. In some conditions, like a warm summer's day, it would be very pleasurable.

"I normally go running in Richmond Park. If I tried it there, I might get thrown out."

It was not the first time Dr Instone, an honorary research fellow at University College London, had confronted the slings and arrows of public disapproval in his quest for the truth.

Another part of the ancient games involved men in full armour running 350 metres as quickly as possible.

Dr Instone said: "I tried it once about 10 years ago in Regents Park, with a saucepan for a helmet and a dustbin lid for a shield. It was quite arduous doing that and gave me a headache.

"It brought out how a lot of the ancient Greek events were of military origin. A lot of it was associated with pain and endurance. The Greeks believed in 'no pain, no gain'."


Although the modern Olympics - at least in theory - are supposed to be more about the taking part than the winning, the opposite was true of the original games, which started in 776BC.

In fact, their ambition was as naked as their bodies.

Dr Instone said: "It wasn't like being British now, where coming second is considered quite good. Back then, it was considered a total disgrace.

"Some writings describe the loser having to go home by back alley ways to avoid other people. It was part of the Greek shame of defeat.

"Winners would bring back a great deal of reflected glory."

The ancient Greeks pioneered several complex athletic techniques, especially in events such as the javelin and long-jump.

Dr Instone said: "In many ways they were very effective. They might not have been as good as today's athletes, but there's no doubt they were clever."

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