Of all the events in the modern Olympic track and field programme nothing invokes the ancient games quite like the discus. The image of the ancient discus thrower, or discobolus, has become synonymous with the Olympics, having frequently appeared on the both official artworks prepared to promote each Olympiad and a host of commemorative postage stamps, since the games were revived in 1896.

Olympic postage stamps from around the world have regularly featured discus throwers

Discus throwers have also regularly featured on Olympic posters

The discus has a very ancient pedigree with aristocratic overtones; Odysseus, ragged and unrecognised on his long journey home, supposedly used his prowess as a discus thrower to prove his credentials as a true Greek and person of quality to his sceptical hosts. Although it was not a major event in ancient Greek athletics, where it only existed as one of the elements of the pentathlon, it has a special place in modern athletics as the only event with purely Hellenistic roots. Boxing, wrestling, running and equestrianism may have all been more important to the Greeks, but they shared them with many other cultures; the discus was theirs alone.

Given this background, it might be expected that it would be a favourite event of those Victorian and Edwardian historians of ancient sport who did so much to promote the idea that the concept of the gentleman amateur sportsman had a lineage going back to Homeric Greece. However, the exact opposite was the case; from John Pentland Mahaffy’s account of the 1875 Zappas Olympics through to the end of H.A. Harris’ career a hundred years later, British historians of ancient sport were unfailingly critical of the discus. They didn’t like the event, they didn’t like the techniques employed, and they didn’t like the composite wood and metal version used in modern athletics.

The discus first appeared in English literature in Gilbert West’s Dissertation on the Olympick Games, published in 1749. West describes both the event and the object, which he also refers to as a quoit, in some detail although he admits there is a degree of confusion concerning both the rules of the competition and the physical construction of the discus itself. West thought the Greeks and Romans had different versions of the competition and listed descriptions from a remarkably wide range of ancient sources to prove his point. These included references to the discus being made from a variety of materials including iron, stone, brass and wood. West maintained that the discus was thrown underarm, ‘like we throw the quoit’ and intriguingly mentions that, like the javelin, it may sometimes have been thrown using a thong.

Gilbert West whose Dissertation on the Olympick Games was the first academic attempt to understand the ancient games in English

West’s translations are informative, but it is difficult for the reader to accurately imagine what a discus thrower looked like from reading them in isolation. Fortunately, help was soon at hand. In 1765 a wealthy young Lancastrian landowner, Charles Townley, embarked on the Grand Tour and was so smitten with Italy and Sicily that he made several more trips over the following decades, eventually amassing a considerable collection of classical sculpture in the process. In 1794 he acquired the sculpture which was to have pride of place in the centre of the display, a marble discobolus, or discus thrower.

Charles Townley initially displayed his collection of Greek sculpture in his study

This particular example was excavated at the Emperor Hadrian’s villa and was a copy of a lost, but much celebrated, bronze original by the Greek sculptor Myron dating from around 450 BC. The sculpture represents a muscular pentathlete in mid-throw, it was extremely popular in ancient times and copies and imitations were to be found across the Graeco-Roman world. It proved just as popular during the Greek revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and soon no fashionable British garden of any size was complete without a discobolus lurking at the edge of the lawn. Townley’s collection proved so popular with visitors that he eventually moved them out of his study to a purpose-built gallery in central London and, after his death, his family sold the collection to the British Museum.

Townley later built a gallery for his collectionin Park Street, London

Along with other sculptures of athletic Greek male nudes, the discobolus had a profound impact on notions of body image and masculinity. Discus throwers were particularly favoured as an ideal body type precisely because the discus was not an event in its own right. The logic was that a pentathlete had to have a body that was strong enough to fight and throw, but not too heavy to run and jump.

The Discobolus was considered to have the ideal athletic male body

Advocates of amateurism in the nineteenth-century would later use the development of heavier body types by ancient boxers and wrestlers as exemplars of the dangers of over-specialisation and professionalism. The perfectly proportioned discus thrower was compared to sculptures and mosaics of heavyweight boxers and wrestlers and the public invited to identify the former with the gentleman amateur while equating the latter with the kind of bruisers who populated fairground boxing booths and bare-knuckle contests.

Historians of ancient sport pointed to statues such as this Roman boxer as examples of degeneracy in later athletics


Article © of Andy Carter

Part 2:  Early British Interest (and Disinterest!) in the Discus – coming later this week