Wrestling and climbing in the modern Olympics

The IOC has recently announced that both forms of Olympic wrestling (‘Greco-Roman’ and ‘freestyle’) are going to be dropped from the 2020 Olympics to make way for a new sport.


(This is the 2012 London Olympics 74kg Greco-Roman wrestling final between Roman Vlasov and Arsen Julfalakyan).

Or to be more precise wrestling will join a shortlist with seven other sports competing for a single space: baseball/softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding and kung fu.

Personally my vote would go for the climbing. Here’s a video of climbing sensation Adam Ondra, who should be one of big medal contenders even in 8 years time (he’s only 20 now). And here he is at the junior world championships at Valence in 2009:

800px-Adam_Ondra_Valence_2009_(3)An ancient climbing contest

I’ve written before about the arbitrariness of the choice of sports in the modern Olympic programme. Dropping wrestling would have seemed particularly odd to an ancient sports fan: it was one of the most prestigious of all ancient events (e.g. Philostratus, Gymnasticus 11). And the idea of including climbing as part of the Olympic programme would have seemed utterly bizarre.

Having said that, it’s clear that the Greeks were willing to make a competition of just about anything–just not within the context of one of their oldest festivals. This was a society where competition and competitiveness were deeply rooted (although there is a tendency in a lot of modern scholarship to oversimplify that stereotype–lots of ancient writers worry about the effects of competitiveness too).

There is in fact one text which gives a nice parallel for competitive climbing in the ancient world–from Arrian’s account of Alexander the Great’s capture of the Sogdian rock and its seemingly impregnable fortress, in what is now Uzbekistan. Here it is:

Then Alexander announced that twelve talents would be the prize for the first man to climb to the top, eleven talents for the second, and so on for the third, with 300 gold darics as the final prize for the last. This announcement spurred on the Macedonians, who were already keen, all the more. Three hundred men assembled who had experience of rock-climbing (petrobatein) from previous sieges. They prepared small iron pegs, used for securing tents, for driving into the snow where it seemed firm, or into patches of ground not covered by snow, and securing these with strong ropes made of flax, they set off, when night fell, to the steepest and therefore least guarded section of the rock. And driving in these pegs either into the earth, where it showed through, or into the patches of snow which were least likely to give way, they hauled themselves up by a variety of routes up the rock. Thirty of them died during the climb: their bodies fell in various places in the snow, and were not recovered for burial. But the rest of them, reaching the top of the rock around dawn, waved linen flags in the direction of the Macedonian camp, as Alexander had ordered them to do. (Arrian, Anabasis 4.18-19)

And here’s a video reconstruction.

Maybe the idea of a climbing as a competitive sport would not have seemed so odd to an ancient Greek after all, even if it could never have made it into a traditional festival programme.

Postscript: mountains in the ancient and modern world

Lying behind all of that is a series of wider questions about mountains in ancient and modern imagination. I do think there is a tendency to oversimplify ancient attitudes to mountains and to overestimate the degree to which they were different from our own. That’s not to say that mountain climbing of the kind Arrian describes here was widespread in the ancient world: clearly mountaineering as a widely practised leisure activity is a very distinctively modern phenomenon. But it’s not as hard as one might think to find examples in ancient texts of people climbing mountains (Waldo Sweet’s sourcebook Sport and Recreation in Ancient Greece, published in 1987, includes this Arrian passage as one of fourteen examples). And even if we accept that ancient Greeks and Romans used high places for very different reasons from our own, I still think that the ancient world is treated in much too cursory fashion in recent scholarship on the cultural history of mountains. But that’s for another time…