Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
Stadia and Starting Gates "Ancient Olympics Guide"
April 6, 2004
by Hugh M. Lee

The reconstructed starting gate at Nemea in use (Courtesy S.G. Miller/ [LARGER IMAGE]

In 776 B.C., according to legend, a runner named Koroibos sprinted toward the altar of Zeus and crossed the finish line, becoming the first Olympic victor in history. Both distance and contest were called the stadion, or stade. The shortest race in Greek athletics, a stade was 600 plethra, but the length of the plethron used to lay out the track varied from site to site. While the Olympic stade was 192.28 meters, the stade in the Pythian Games at Delphi was 177.5 meters. The stadium in which Koroibos won has not been found, though we are reasonably sure it was somewhat west of the stadium visible today, which was built in the fifth century B.C.

Other Olympic footraces included a double stade (the diaulos) in which runners raced up the field, turned around a post, and returned; the dolichos, literally the "long race," of seven to 24 stades (1,400 to 4,800 meters); and the armed race (the hoplitodromos) in which runners, wearing a helmet and shin guards and carrying a shield, ran a diaulos. The marathon is a modern invention, first held during the 1896 Olympics in Athens. The Greeks were, however, known to run ultramarathon distances. Before the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., the Athenian courier Philippides ran to Sparta seeking help, a distance of 135 miles, in less than 48 hours.

Unlike the modern oval track surrounding an infield, the ancient running course was a rectangular field marked off at each end by stone blocks set into the ground in a line or sill called a balbis. The balbis usually had parallel grooves carved along its length, as well as sockets at regular intervals for posts. The posts in the balbis served a dual purpose, as part of the starting gate and as turning posts (kampteres). The grooves marked the positions for the runners' feet. As sculpture and vase painting reveal, the runners employed a standing start, the left foot slightly ahead of the right. The back end of the grooves was vertical to allow the runners to grip with their toes and shove off, whereas the forward end was beveled toward the track to keep the runners from stubbing their toes.

Corinth experimented with the form of the starting line in its stadium, built ca. 500 B.C. The balbis was curved so that in races with turns the runners on the outside did not have to run farther than those on the inside. Furthermore the runners placed their toes into individual toe grooves, not a continuous groove along the sill. The front and rear grooves were two or three feet apart, indicating the runners employed a wide starting stance.

In the diaulos the runners had individual turning posts and two lanes for the run up the track and back. Colored dust was probably used to mark off the lanes. For the dolichos the runners turned around single posts at each end. Where were these posts located? The fourth-century B.C. stadium at Nemea sheds some light. A stone block with a socket hole is 5.3 meters on the track side of the balbis and 3.4 meters to the west of the central longitudinal north-south axis. The socket hole held a turning post, and a similar one must have existed at the other, unexcavated, end of the stadium. The runners therefore clustered to their right as they approached the posts at each end.

How did the Greeks start their races? Originally, they probably used an auditory signal, either an official saying "Go" or perhaps a trumpet blast. Runners could anticipate the signal and start too soon, hence the invention of a starting gate, or hysplex. Inspired by the representation of a gate on a fourth-century Athenian vase, Stephen G. Miller of the University of California, Berkeley, and his Greek colleague Panos Valavanis reconstructed a form of the hysplex on the balbis of the stadium at Nemea in 1993 (see their work, Hysplex: The Starting Mechanism in Ancient Stadia. A Contribution to Ancient Greek Technology [1999].) This hysplex functions like the simple mousetrap. Between poles at each end of the balbis, ropes are stretched to form a barrier. Utilizing torsion from twisted ropes, the gate is lowered onto the ground, then raised against the tension and kept in a vertical position by a ring and cord fastened to larger stationary posts at each end. The rings are also attached to ropes held by an official standing behind the runners. When he jerks the ropes, the rings slip off the poles, the gate slams forward, and the runners spring onto the track.

Hugh M. Lee is an associate professor of classics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Back to Olympics Guide

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America