Lost Ancient Sports: Part 1


Ancient sports were not like sports as we see them today. Ancient sports were much more  violent, the stakes were much higher, as death has been often the unfortunate consequence of the participants of official sports events. Ancient sports did not have the strict rules that exist in modern sports. Here are two ancient sports that no longer exist in our modern world.


Pankration is a form of Greek martial arts whose origin can be dated back to ancient Greece. It is the ancient form of the modern day Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), which combines both wrestling and boxing in a single sport.

The game and its’ history can be traced back to the 12th millennium BC, showing its’ sacred value to the Greek people. According to Greek historian PLUTARCH, it was the ancient Greek mythical warrior, THESEUS, who created the martial arts known as Pankration. He claimed that Pankration   techniques were employed by THESEUS to defeat the great Minotaur.

Although other historians gave different accounts of the origin of the game, one of which was given by PAUSANIUS, who claimed that the Demi-God HERCULES was the originator of the game. He was said to have won a Pankration   contest organised by the ARGONAUTS. The first PYTHIAN games set by APOLLO himself was also claimed to have been won by Hercules. Other sources say that he employed Pankration   techniques when he fought and defeated the NEMEANLION.

The term “Pankration” is derived from the Greek words “PAN” and “KRATIOS” which can mean ‘’All Power”, ‘’One Who Wields Great Power”, or “One Who Gains Victory Through Power”; in short it’s a game of power.

In the game of Pankration, the fighters were allowed to use any move they desired, although they were forbidden from biting, gouging on the enemies’ eyes or their face or genitals. The objective of the game was to push your opponent to that point of their health where pain and injuries would either make him lose his senses, give up or die a painful death, which was not a very seldom occurrence.

Before being recognised as an athletic sport, Pankration  was used, during the HELLENIC civilisation as an effective art of warfare and as a form of military training. It was first recognised as an athletic sport in 648 BC, when it was induced into the OLYMPIA, the ancient Greek Olympics, and into the youth male event in 200 BC, and soon it became the most popular sport in existence at the time, and it continued to be a part of Olympics until 393 AD.

Pankration  spread quickly through the cities of Greece, and then through the shores of the Mediterranean, before Alexander The Great, spread it throughout the world by taking it abroad with him during his conquests of Europe, Persia, and India.

This sport is considered as one of history’s great sports, it was lost during the middle ages and the decision to exclude it from the modern Olympic Games was not well received by many. In  1895 AD the Cardinal of Lyon, voiced his official decision on the reinstate all sports by Pierre de Coubertain, [the founder of the Modern Olympic Games] by stating “Nous acceptons tout, sauf Pankration ” meaning “ We accept all sports to be reinstated but Pankration ’’.                

On 17th April 1999, the International Federation of Pankration (IFPA) was established in Lamia, Greece, as a Non-Governmental, Not for Profit, International Sports Federation with the sole objective of reinstating the Ancient Olympic’s martial sport Pankration  to its rightful place in the International Olympic Arena.


Mesoamerican Ballgame

The Mesoamerican Ballgame, known as “PITZ,” was a popular sport that was played in Pre-Columbian America by the well-known nations of the OLMECS, AZTECS and of course the MAYANS.

Different villages and communities used to come together during the official sport event of Pitz to compete against each other. Political feuds were settled through Pitz matches played between communities and nations. Hence, we can very well understand how high the stakes were. The term WINNER TAKES ALL takes its’ most literal meaning in such games, as the winners used to be honoured in the highest possible way by their rulers, while the losers were beheaded. Therefore, unlike the Greek game of Pankration, Pitz had political as well as religious significance besides being an occasion of entertainment. The religious significance lies in the death penalties given to the members of the losing team, which was a religious ritual as the sacrifices were made to please their Gods. 

The earliest known account of the game’s origin was more than 2000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. It is said it was the Olmecs created the game and made it an official sports event. Later the Aztecs and Mayans inherited this tradition, and the game continued to thrive in its popularity until the invasion of the Europeans. It is reported that the British, when they arrived on the shores of what is now Mexico and Central America found locals engaged in ball games and they were so impressed by this that they took some of these locals back to England with them to perform in front of the King and the royal court.

The game bears great similarities to modern ball games like football, basketball, and hockey. It was a team game where two teams competed against each other and the objective of the game was to use their hips, elbows, shoulders, or head (if they could) to pass a ball through a hoop that lay on the opponent’s wall. Passing the ball through the hoop once gave the team a 1-0 lead over their opponents. Points were also awarded if the ball was dropped. In some versions of the sport, which varied through different cultures, sticks were used instead of limbs or hips to hit the ball. The ball was a very hard and heavy object, meaning heading it (as is done in football today) would result in a grave head injury or in a more extreme case, death.

A very old legend exists in the Mayan mythology about the HERO TWINS, which serves as a source of inspiration and motivation to the participating athletes of Pitz.

The story runs thus, “There lived two brothers, ONE MUHTAUPU and SEVEN MUHTAUPU, who were greatly skilled in the game but very noisy whenever they played. The Gods of the underworld used to be annoyed by the noises they made. So they invited the two brothers to come to the underworld and accept their challenge of a ball game match. They accepted the challenge and visited the underworld where they were put to test by the Gods. But loosing the match, they were killed right away. One was buried underground, but his brother SEVEN, was beheaded and his head was hung from the top of a tree.

One day a Maya Goddess was passing by that tree when the head SEVEN beckoned her to give her hand. She did and he spat onto that hand, and miraculously she was impregnated and gave birth to twins, who later became known as the HERO TWINS.

When the twins grew up and became great ball players like their father and uncle, they learnt about their father and uncle’s fate and decided to avenge them. So they ventured into the underworld, where they were put to test like their predecessors, but having been warned beforehand about the tricks that the Gods would use on them, they passed the tests and were allowed to play a Pitz match against the Gods. They defeated the Gods, but the Gods still killed them. As their mother was a Goddess of the underworld, they resurrected themselves and then finally killed the Death Gods. And this how they avenged the death of their father and uncle.”