Here’s a story of death from over-exertion from the classical world—and in the process some reflections on ancient training practices, at Olympia and elsewhere.

The death of Gerenos

One of our most important sources for what went on in ancient gymnasia is Philostratus’ Gymnasticus (early third century AD). It’s a kind of manual of athletic training techniques, which gives a highly idealised vision of the job of the athletic trainer and the history of the discipline.

It’s a difficult text in many ways, but it’s full of good anecdotes about trainers at the Olympics. Here’s one:

Evidence against the tetrad system, which I have already rejected, also comes from the great error made in the case of the wrestler Gerenos, whose tomb lies in Athens on the right of the road to Eleusis. For this man was from Naukratis, and was one of the best wrestlers, as demonstrated by the victories he won in competition. He happened to win at Olympia, and two days after later he celebrated his victory and gave a feast for some of his friends, eating more luxuriously than he was used to, and was deprived of sleep. When he came to the gymnasium the next day he admitted to his trainer that he was suffering from indigestion and that he felt unwell in some way. The trainer became angry and listened furiously and was irritable with him on the grounds that he was relaxing his training and interrupting the tetrads, until he actually killed the athlete through his training, out of ignorance, by not prescribing the exercises he should have chosen even if the athlete had said nothing about his condition [in other words the trainer should have been perceptive enough to work out Gerenos’ condition from his outward bodily appearance]. The damage which is caused by this kind of tetrad system and by a trainer who is so untrained and uneducated is not inconsiderable. How can it not be a bad thing that the stadia should lose an athlete of that calibre? (Gymnasticus 54)

We can’t be absolutely sure that the story is true—this athlete isn’t mentioned in any other ancient text. But it does look entirely plausible. The recent cases of Piermario Morosini and Claire Squires are desperately sad reminders of that—these things still happen in sport today, and there’s no reason to think that that wouldn’t have been the case in the ancient world too.

Training facilities at Olympia

But even if the story is a fabrication by Philostratus or one of his sources, it can still tell us a lot about the Olympics and about ancient conceptions of training.

For one thing it gives us a glimpse of how important the training facilities at Olympia must have been. There was a big gymnasium building on the north-eastern edge of the Olympic site with a practice running track (top left in this map, labelled ‘Palaestra’—with the temple of Zeus and other temples in the centre, and the stadium stretching away on the right-hand side):

It must have been packed with athletes during the days around the contests.

It’s particularly interesting to see this athlete training in the Olympic gymnasium after the Olympic events have finished. He has stayed on for several days after the contests, in order to celebrate his victory. The contests themselves took place on the fourth day of the festival, with the fifth day set aside for prize-giving and official banquets, which is why Gerenos has to wait for two days after the victory to have his own private party. Presumably he is heading off to compete at another festival soon in some other part of the Mediterranean world, which is why he needs to keep in good condition.

Principles of training

Even more interesting, I think, is what this reveals about ancient conceptions of training.

Philostratus, like other ancient authors, stresses the importance of adapting training to the needs of the individual. That means responding carefully to the distinctive physiological make-up of each individual athlete, or in this case to temporary alterations in the body (caused here by recent overindulgence), rather than imposing the same blanket training regime on everyone. (The ‘tetrad’ system, heavily criticised by Philostratus here, was a system for training athletes on a rigid four-day cycle, with different types and intensities of exercise on each of the four days of the cycle). Presumably most modern trainers would agree about the importance of adapting to the individual (e.g. see here or here or on the ‘Individual differences principle’ in modern training).

In the process the passage also puts a lot of emphasis on the responsibilities of the athletic trainer himself. Philostratus suggests that the trainer needs to know his athlete as well as the athlete knows himself—he should have spotted that there was something wrong with Gerenos without being told. In this anecdote at least, getting the relationship between trainer and athlete right is crucial for an athlete’s future.