The Strangest Sports Stories In History

The Strangest Sports Stories In History

Khalid Elhassan - June 14, 2023

Sport history is chock full of fascinating facts. Take the time that a steeplechase race was won by a dead jockey. Or when Emperor Nero decided to compete in the Olympics. He was crowned victor in more events than any other competitor in the history of the Olympics. Below are twenty five things about those and other fascinating sport facts from history.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
A Belmont Park steeplechase. Pinterest

“The Sport of Kings” is Hard Work for Both Horse and Rider

Horse racing is one of humanity’s most ancient sport competitions. It has often been referred to as “the sport of kings”, even though history records precious few kings who dominated that sport. Perhaps it got the nickname because royalty liked to watch? The basic idea, to decide which of various horses is the swiftest over a set distance or specific course, has not changed in thousands of years. The sport, whose popularity has suffered a steep decline in recent decades, can be as thrilling as thrilling gets.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Frank Hayes and his horse, Sweet Kiss, mid-jump during his fatal race. Imgur

Naturally and deservedly, the horse gets the top billing in a horse race. However, the rider is a key factor in whether a horse realizes its full potential. Jockeys need to minimize their horses’ inertial loss. They have to ride in a manner that reduces the energy expended by the horse as it bounces its rider up and down and forward and backwards with each stride. That makes it easier for a horse to carry a jockey than an equal deadweight attached to its saddle. It is hard work. So hard, that jockeys have suffered heart attacks, and even died, from the exertion. One such, as seen below, expired mid-race, but still won despite the fact that he was dead by the time he crossed the finish line.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Frank Hayes. New York Daily News

The Dead Jockey Who Won a Race

Frank Hayes was a horse trainer and stableman. Then one day in 1923, the then twenty-two-year-old (or thirty five – contemporary accounts differed) was asked to ride a horse in a steeplechase at the Belmont Park racetrack in New York. His horse, Sweet Kiss, was a 20:1 longshot. Between that and the fact that it was Hayes’ first race, nobody expected much of him or of his steed. He surprised everybody – on multiple levels. To make weight, Hayes had to slim down from 142 pounds to 130, and he reportedly pulled it off in a day. As the Buffalo Morning Express described it: “he spent several hours on the road, jogging off surplus weight. He strove and sweated and denied himself water and when he climbed into the saddle at post time he was weak and tired“.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Frank Hayes won despite being dead. Ripley’s Believe it or Not

That was a bad place to be, especially for a newbie who had never raced before. The sport is demanding of jockeys, whose arms and legs work like pistons nonstop, and whose heart rates can beat 180 times a minute. At some point during the race that turned out to be Hayes’ first and last, he suffered a heart attack and died instantly. However, he did not fall off his horse, but remained in the saddle and crossed the finish line in first place. It was only when officials came to congratulate him that they discovered that he had shuffled off the mortal coil. Hayes became the only dead jockey known to have won a race. As to Sweet Kiss, it never raced again. It became known forever after as the “Sweet Kiss of Death”.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Nero made up his own Greek-style games. Flickr

An Imperial Sport Superstar

Nero isn’t commonly associated with the Olympics, but the infamous Roman emperor was the most successful Olympics competitor, ever. He reportedly won 1808 wreaths – the equivalent of medals today – in a single Olympics. Many think that the Olympics are corrupt today. A bastardized and commercialized version of a glorious and pure original that was full of good sportsmanship and governed by integrity. However, Nero won an Olympics chariot race that he didn’t even finish because his chariot crashed and overturned during the race. The judges declared him the winner anyhow, on grounds that he would have won had he been able to complete the race. Nero greatly admired Greek culture. In 60 AD, he set up the first Greek games in Rome, which, modesty not being his strong suit, he named the Neronia.

There was a twist, however. Unlike regular Greek games, sport was not emphasized. Instead, the Neronia’s competitions focused mostly on music and literature, and the victors dedicated their crowns to Nero. He did not personally participate in the inaugural Neronia. For an emperor to compete in such events was considered unseemly, and at the time, Nero still cared about appearances. That did not last. Four years after the inaugural Neronia, in 64 AD, Nero tossed his worries about propriety out the window, and participated in his first public games, the Naples Sebasta. In 65 AD, he participated in the second Neronia, as a kithara – an ancient Greek instrument similar to a lyre – singer. A year later, he raced his chariot in the Circus Maximus.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Nero strumming a lyre as Rome burns. The Daily Mirror

Nero, a Sport Hero?

Nero had always dreamt of becoming an Olympics champion. So he arranged for the games to be delayed a couple years until he could visit Greece. He finally did in 67AD. Olympics officials were terrified of offending an unstable man who could have them crucified at whim with a snap of his fingers. So judges showered him with awards and wreaths for every event in which he participated, and for many in which he did not participate. They even awarded him wreaths for singing and lyre playing. They were not Olympics events, but the judges, just to be on the safe side, awarded him Olympics wreaths for them, anyhow. When he got back home, Nero made four separate triumphal entries to celebrate his success. The first was in Naples, then in Antium, his birthplace, Alba Longa, where he had a country residence, and finally, in Rome.

Unsurprisingly, Nero saved his grandest entry for the imperial capital, which he entered through a hole cut in the city walls, in the triumphal chariot of Augustus. Unlike Rome’s first emperor, Nero was clad in Greek garb, with an Olympic wreath on his head, and a Pythian – one of the four major Greek games, which include the Olympics – crown on his right arm. It was an artistic triumph, however, rather than a martial one. So Nero rode to the temple of Apollo, rather than to that of Jupiter Capitolinus, the traditional destination of victorious generals. It was a hit with the masses, but it disgusted Rome’s elites. It was unseemly for an emperor – or any high-born Roman – to behave in such a manner.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
‘Nero’s Death’, by Vasily Smirnov. The Times Literary Supplement

Hunger for the Limelight Backfired on This Emperor

Nero further infuriated Rome’s elites when he forced them to participate in his spectacles. In his long poetry recitals and musical concerts, many audience members were bored and annoyed to distraction. So much so, that some men faked heart attacks or even death to get taken out, and women faked labor to leave. Such spectacles diminished Nero’s prestige, and increased the disdain with which he was increasingly viewed. By 68 AD, discontent reached the breaking point, and various generals and provincial governors rebelled. In Rome, the Senate officially declared Nero a public enemy, and his Praetorian Guard abandoned him. Fleeing Rome, Nero toyed with impractical ideas, such as throwing himself upon the mercy of the public to beg its forgiveness.

He wanted to play them the lyre so as to “soften their hearts”, and be allowed to retire to a province which he could govern. He composed a speech to that effect, but desisted when informed that he would probably be torn apart by a mob if he was sighted in public. While mulling alternatives, news came that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate, had been sentenced to be beaten to death publicly, and that soldiers were en route to arrest and take him to the site of execution. With all options closed, Nero decided to end his life. He couldn’t do it himself, so he had a freedman stab him with a sword. His last words were: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Ancient Greek pankration, left, was the ancestor of modern MMA. BJJ Eastern Europe

The Ancient Greeks’ Favorite Combat Sport

The ancient Greek sport of pankration, which means “all force”, combined boxing and wrestling. It was a no-holds-barred event. Other than for a few prohibitions – a competitor could not gouge or bite, or attack his opponent’s genitals – just about everything was allowed. Pankration is seen today as the ancestor of modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Arrhichion of Phigalia (died 564 BC), who was crowned champion of that sport in the 572 BC and 568 BC Olympiads, was the most famous Greek pankratist.

He sought a threepeat at the 564 BC Olympic Games, and advanced through the early rounds to the title bout. There, age finally caught up with and slowed him down. For the first time in the Olympics, he got into trouble. Arrhichion’s opponent outmaneuvered him, got behind the champion, locked legs around his torso, dug heels into his groin, and applied a chokehold. Arrhichion was too much of a competitor to accept defeat, however, and managed to turn things around. Unfortunately, the paid dearly.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Pankratists. Ancient Origins

A Victorious Corpse

As seen above, a horse race was once won by a dead jockey. It was not the first time in the history of sport that a corpse won a competition. Thousands of years earlier, when Arrhichion of Phigalia was locked in a chokehold in the 564 BC Olympic Games’ pankration title bout, things seemed hopeless. However, the two-time returning champion had a few tricks up his sleeve. He feigned a loss of consciousness, which got his opponent to relax a bit. When his opponent eased off, the wily title holder snapped back into action. With a convulsive heave, he shook and threw off his opponent, and snapped his ankle in the process.

The sudden and excruciating pain of the snapped ankle made Arrhichion’s opponent do the ancient Greeks’ equivalent of a tap out, and he made the sign of submission to the referees. However, when he threw off his opponent while the latter still had him in a chokehold, Arrhichion’s neck was broken. Since his opponent had already quit, the dead Arrhichion’s was declared the winner. It was perhaps the only time in Olympics history that a corpse was crowned a victor. The three-times pankration champion thus added a wrinkle to the athletic ideal of “victory or death” by gaining victory and death.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Things swiftly got out of control on Ten Cent Beer Night. Laughs From the Past

Cleveland’s Worst Sport Promotion?

The Cleveland Indians wanted to boost attendance in 1974. So they informed their fans that the June 4th, 1974, game against the Texas Rangers would feature twelve-ounce beers, sold for a dime instead of the regular 65 cents price. The Indians had offered a 5-cent-beer night in 1971, without a problem. However, cheap booze in a game against the Rangers was a bad mix: a bench-clearing brawl in the teams’ last meeting had left many Indians fans with a grudge against the Rangers. The promotion worked great: over 25,000 people showed up. However, most were not there for the game: fans packed the concession stands to buy up to half a dozen beers at a time. They chugged down the bargain brew, then staggered back for more. Soon, the fans were wasted.

In the second inning, a heavyset woman stormed the field, flashed her big boobs at the crowd, then tried to kiss the umpire. The ballpark went wild, then fans began passing joints. Then firecrackers went off all over the place, and made the place sound like a war zone. When the Rangers hit another home run, a naked man rushed the field and slid into second base. Security failed to catch him. In the meantime, the beer lines grew longer at the concession stands, and the already drunk fans became belligerent. That was when the Indians’ management had another bad idea: let the fans get their brew directly from the beer trucks outside the ballpark.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Texas Rangers beating up a drunk assailant. Sports Illustrated

A Drunken Sport Riot

Thirsty fans stampeded for the beer trucks. Unfortunately, management had not beefed up staffing or security for the trucks: they were overseen by two teenaged girls. They promptly fled. With no one to stop them, the fans treated the beer trucks like private kegs, and some drank straight out of the trucks’ hoses as if they were straws. Then two drunks got up on a wall, and mooned the crowd. They loved it. It was still just the fifth of nine innings. Halfway through the game, as chaos engulfed the Indians’ ballpark, a Rangers player was hit by a ball. The crowd loved that as well, and began to shout: “HIT HIM HARDER!” Against that backdrop, the Rangers’ manager Billy Martin, an alcoholic who had supposedly once taken a hit out on an umpire, came out to argue a call.

The home crowd did not like that, and plastic cups rained down from the stands. They were followed soon thereafter by a hail of firecrackers so intense that the Rangers’ bullpen had to be evacuated for the players’ safety. An announcer asked the fans to quit throwing trash on the field, to no avail. Soon, the fans were throwing not just plastic cups and firecrackers, but other items like hot dogs, rocks, batteries, trash cans, and ripped out seats. Simultaneously, so many streakers got on the field that piles of clothes formed up. By then, it was clear that the Indians had skimped on security: they had hired only 50 personnel for the entire ballpark. Worse, by the 8th inning, just about everybody who worked for the Indians’ administration had left.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Texas Rangers flee for their lives from drunk Indians fans. The Daily Dose

The Indians Had to Forfeit a Game Because of Their Fans

A wasted fan jumped into the field in the 9th inning, grabbed an outfielder’s cap, and ran around wildly. When he finally dropped the cap, the livid outfielder kicked him. That was the Rangers’ manager Billy Martin, a known hothead, grabbed a baseball bat. He turned to his players, rallied them like a Civil War colonel pumping up regiment for a bayonet charge, and his team: “Boys! Let’s get em!” The Rangers stormed the field with their bats, to fight the fans who by then had knives, chains, and other improvised weapons. Things started out well for the Rangers, but soon, the locals’ numbers began to tell.

Billy Martin’s routed men fled the field, pursued by hostile fans. The Indians manager, realizing that the Texans were about to get slaughtered, got his own players to arm themselves with bats, and rushed them onto the field to protect the Rangers. In the end, riot police and a SWAT team arrived to break it up. The tally for the night was over 60,000 beers consumed, almost 20 streakers, about 10 trips to the emergency room, and 9 arrests. The game could not be resumed in a timely manner, so the Indians were forced to forfeit.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Milo of Croton carried calves as a child, and graduated to full grown bulls by the time he was an adult. Greek Reporter

The Ancient Greeks’ Greatest Sport Star

Milo of Croton (flourished 6th century BC) was the most famous and celebrated ancient Greek sport figure. A wrestler of great renown, he was also a renowned warrior who led his fellow citizens to military victory. Freakishly powerful, Milo carried a bull on his shoulders by way of strength training, and his daily diet included twenty pounds of meat, twenty pounds of bread, washed down by ten liters of wine. To intimidate opponents, he ate raw bull’s meat in their presence, and drank raw bull’s blood. His string of athletic victories was unprecedented and unsurpassed. He dominated the quadrennial Panhellenic Games – the Olympic, Pythian, Nymean, and Isthmian – for decades.

Croton, modern Crotone in southern Italy, was famous for its people’s physical strength, and the city produced generations of sport stars. In the 576 BC Olympics, for example, the first seven finishers in the 200-yard sprint, the stadion, were all from Croton. Milo surpassed all who came before him. In a decades-long stretch from 540 BC to about 516 BC, he won the wrestling championship in six Olympic Games, seven Pythian Games, nine Nemean Games, and ten Isthmian Games. He was also a five-time Periodonikes – a kind of “grand slam” title bestowed upon somebody who was crowned champion in all four Panhellenic Games in the same four-year cycle.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
‘Milo of Croton’, by Joseph Benoit Suvee. Wikimedia

An Ancient Superstar’s Unfortunate End

Not only was Milo of Croton an ancient sport superstar, he was also a great warrior. In 510 BC, the tyrant of nearby Sybaris banished some of his leading citizens, and was offended when Croton offered them asylum. Things escalated, especially after the philosopher Pythagoras, who spent much of his time in Croton, urged its citizens to use the dispute as a pretext to destroy Sybaris. War broke out, and Milo led the forces of Croton to victory, decked out in his Olympic crowns, a lion skin, and armed with a club like Hercules.

Milo’s remarkable life came to a bizarre end one day when he went out for a stroll through the woods, and came upon a tree trunk that had been partially split with wedges. Always on the lookout for opportunities to challenge himself with feats of strength, Milo tried to rend the tree apart with his bare hands. However, the wedges fell off and his hands got stuck in the crack. It was bad day for the era’s greatest athlete. It got worse when a pack of wolves (or a pride of lions, per some narratives) came upon him as he struggled to free himself, and ate him alive.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Gladiators. Ancient Origins

Ancient Roman Sport Superstars

The people of Ancient Rome had what can best be described as mixed feelings about gladiator, their world’s sport superstars. On the one hand, gladiators were despised as slaves, trained under extremely brutal conditions, marginalized, and generally segregated from free Romans. Not only were gladiators decidedly low brow brutes whose presence offended polite society, they were also potentially quite dangerous low brow brutes. A prime example was the gladiator uprising led by Spartacus in the 70s BC, which terrified Rome and Italy for years.

On the other hand, gladiators, especially the most successful ones, were admired and celebrated as if they were a cross between modern rock stars and star athletes. Because of their constant training, gladiators were often impressive physical specimens, well proportioned, with rippling muscles and oil-coated bronzed bodies that glistened in the arena before spectators. That mix of lethality and high physical fitness made gladiators the objects of sexual fantasies for many Roman women, and for quite a few Roman men, for that matter. It also gave rise, as seen below, to some ridiculous beliefs about the healing properties of gladiators’ bodily fluids.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
A pair of strigils from the first century BC, with an attached oil container. Wikimedia

Gladiators Were the Rock Stars of Their Day

Many ancient Romans gratified their sexual fantasies with gladiators. If the gladiator sexual fantasy could not be gratified directly – and huge, although not insurmountable, social barriers often stood in the way – it might be gratified at a remove. Gladiator bodily fluids, especially their sweat, were highly sought after commodities in Ancient Rome. Ridiculous as it might seem today, wealthy Roman women were eager to pay a hefty price for sweat and dirt from the bodies of famous gladiators.

A curved metal blade called a strigil, used by Romans to remove dirt, perspiration, and oils from the skin before bathing, was used to scrape sweat and dirt from gladiators’ skins. The scrapings were then collected in vials, which were offered for sale outside gladiatorial games. The buyers often applied the gladiators’ sweat and grime directly to their mugs, as a type of facial cream. Others mixed the vials’ contents with cosmetics and perfumes – usually the preserve of high status ladies. Roman women also sought gladiator blood.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Gladiators. World History Encyclopedia

The Curative Properties of These Sport Idols’ Bodily Fluids

Many Roman women used the blood of their favorite gladiators to coat their jewelry, combs, wigs, and other accoutrements, or mixed it with their cosmetics. Gladiators were seen as especially virile, which led to the somewhat ghoulish and macabre practice of using gladiator sweat and blood as aphrodisiacs. The more successful and famous a gladiator, the more potent an aphrodisiac his blood or sweet were believed to be. It could be drunk pure, but more often, was mixed with wine. Gladiator blood was also believed to have healing properties, particularly as an epilepsy treatment.

As Pliny the Elder described it: “Epileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators, draughts filled with life as it were; a thing that, when we see it done by the wild beasts in the same arena, inspires us with horror at the spectacle! And yet these persons consider it a most effective cure for their disease, to drink he warm, breathing, blood from man himself, and, as they apply their mouth to the wound, to draw forth his very life; and this, though it is regarded as an act of impiety to apply the human lips to the wound even of a wild beast!”

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Disco, its fans, and fashion, rubbed rock and rollers the wrong way. Pinterest

When Sport and Music Met in a Toxic Mix

One of America’s most infamous sport riots was triggered by, of all things, disco music. The genre came out of nowhere, dominated the charts for years, and then simply vanished. Radio ignored disco for years after it first appeared in the 1960s. That changed after the dance-oriented music got exposure in DJ-based underground nightclubs that catered to Black, Latino, and gay dancers. Disco began to get airtime, and by the mid-1970s it had established itself. It was more than just a musical genre.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Disco was not everybody’s cup of tea. Flickr

Disco revolutionized fashion, as night clubbers adopted extravagant outfits of loose and flowing clothes that were easier to dance in. A drug subculture also thrived, as quaaludes and cocaine, that enhanced the experience of flashing lights and loud music, became popular in disco nightclubs. Soon enough, the music that seemingly came from nowhere became more popular than rock and roll. Disco’s dominance of disco did not sit well with many rock fans, and the dance music’s rise was accompanied by serious resentment.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
An athlete stretching out his foreskin, so he could tie it up. Wikimedia

Ancient Greek Sport Stars Used to Tie… Their Manhood

Many ancient Greek statues and vase paintings that depict men engaged in sport portray them nude. The era’s literature also makes clear that athletes competed while naked. So it seems reasonable to assume that the Greeks lacked the kinds of hangups we have today about bare bodies, since they often let it all hang out. As it turns out, however, the ancient Greeks had one particular hangup, that had to do with the male member: they thought that the naked glans was vulgar.

Ancient Greeks did not practice circumcision, so the glans was usually covered by the foreskin. However, the glans might pop out while engaged in frenetic sport activities. To avoid such an embarrassment, a string, known as the kynodesme (“dog leash”), was wrapped around the foreskin to ensure that the glans stayed out of sight. The Romans, who thought the Greeks were sissies, dialed it up a notch: instead of dainty strings, they used iron clamps, iron rings, or straight up safety pins through the foreskin.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Abner Doubleday has long been associated with baseball. Amazon

The General Credited With Inventing America’s Favorite Pastime

Baseball has often been ascribed to Abner Doubleday, an Army officer who fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter at the start of the US Civil War. He became a Union Army general, and played a pivotal role in the Battle of Gettysburg. On the civilian side of the ledger, he secured a patent on the San Francisco cable car railway that runs to this day. He is best known, however for his links to baseball, and was credited for many years with inventing the sport in the 1830s. Doubleday was born in 1819 in New York, to a family of warriors. His father fought in the War of 1812, and his paternal grandfather fought in Patriot ranks in the Revolutionary War. His maternal grandparent had been a messenger for George Washington, and at least one of his great grandparents had been a Minuteman.

Doubleday was accepted into West Point in 1838, graduated four years later, and was commissioned as an artillery officer. He fought in the Mexican War, 1846 to 1848, and in the Seminole Wars, 1856 to 1858. In 1861, he was second in command in the federal garrison at Fort Sumter when it was fired upon by Rebels to start off the Civil War. He personally aimed the first cannon that returned fire, and forever after credited himself with firing the war’s first shot in defense of the Union. After the Sumter garrison capitulated and vacated the fort, Doubleday served in the artillery of the Army of the Potomac. By the time of the Second Battle of Bull Run, he commanded a brigade.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
Abner Doubleday’s position on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Wikimedia

The Man Who Saved the Day for the Union at Gettysburg

The Union was defeated in the Second Battle of Bull Run. Abner Doubleday led his division after its commander was wounded, and covered the army’s retreat. At the Battle of Antietam, the division commander was again wounded, and Doubleday again took charge, and led his men in fierce fighting in which he was wounded. By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, Doubleday had been appointed to permanent command of his own division in the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps. That corps was the first to arrive at battlefield. It reinforced a cavalry brigade that had been fighting a delaying action west of Gettysburg, in order to buy Union forces enough time to reach and occupy strong defensive positions nearby. In the first day’s fighting, I Corps’ commander, General John F. Reynolds, was killed, and Doubleday took charge.

Leading 9000 men, he fought off nearly twice as many Confederates for five hours. His command sustained horrific casualties, before it was forced to retreat to defensive positions on the high ground south of Gettysburg. I Corps was effectively destroyed in that first day’s fighting, and shattered so badly that it would be decommissioned the following year, with its components sent off to reinforce other corps. However, Doubleday had bought the rest of the Union army enough time to reach the battlefield, and secure the high ground for whose possession he had sacrificed his corps. The remainder of the Battle of Gettysburg over the following days boiled down to the Confederates vainly attacking the Union forces in an attempt to knock them off those heights. The Rebels were beaten back each time, culminating in Picket’s Charge on the last day’s fighting, before admitting defeat and retreating to Virginia.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
A colorized photo of Abner Doubleday. Helmar Sports Cards and Baseball History

Baseball’s Supposed Inventor Discovered That No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Without Doubleday’s ferocious stubbornness on the first day of Gettysburg, things could have gone differently in the war’s greatest battle. The story could well have been one in which the Confederates were the ones to first secure and occupy the heights south of Gettysburg. The Army of the Potomac’s morale was none too high after humiliating defeats in the preceding months in the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. It also had a new commander, whom most did not know. Rather than defend, it would have been forced to attack strong defensive positions situated on high ground, manned by an enemy brimming with confidence after a string of recent successes. Doubleday spared the Union that nightmare. However, because sometimes no good deed goes unpunished, he was penalized rather than applauded.

General George Meade, the Army of the Potomac’s new commander, disliked Doubleday. He was primed to believe false reports that I Corps under Doubleday, rather than save the day, had broken and fled, causing the entire Union line to unravel. So Meade took I Corps from Doubleday, and sent him back to command his division. Doubleday fought well in charge of his division during the remainder of the battle, and was wounded in the process. But for the rest of his life, he never forgave Meade. After the Civil War, Doubleday was stationed in San Francisco, where he secured a patent for the cable car railway that still runs there to this day. Retiring from the US Army in 1873, he became a New York lawyer, and wrote memoirs and histories of the Civil War. He died in 1893, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
The ancient Greeks held the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. Olympics

The Ancient and Modern World’s Greatest Sport Competition

The modern Olympic Games are a mega global sport event – the mega global sport event – rivaled only by soccer’s FIFA World Cup. The 2020 (or 2021) Tokyo Olympics hosted 11,326 athletes from 205 nations, plus the International Olympic Committee’s Refugee Olympic Team. All primed to compete for glory and medals in 339 events, divided between 33 sports and 50 disciplines. The difference between the scope and scale of today’s Olympics and the original event would probably astonish and amaze the ancient Greeks, if they knew what their competition would one day become.

When the Olympics were first inaugurated in 776 BC, and for over half a century through 724 BC, there was only one sport competition: the stadion. It was named after the building in which it was held, which became stadium in Latin, and thus the English stadium. Even after more competitions were added, the stadion remained the key Olympic Games event. The building after it was named was big enough to contain 20 competitors, who ran an approximately 200 yard or 180 meter sprint. The first few races might have been slightly longer, however, as the original stadion in Olympia had a track that was 210 yards or 190 meters long. The athletes lined up, and games officials were positioned at the starting blocks, on the lookout for false starts.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
The stadion race was the only competition in the first Olympic Games. Imagining History

The Ancient Greeks’ Most Prestigious Sport

Runners today take off from a crouch, but ancient Greek sprinters took off from a standing position, their arms stretched out before them. They were also nude. It is unclear how the original start line was marked, but by the fifth century BC at the latest, there was a stone start line, known as the balbis. Eventually, double grooves about four to four and a half inches apart were carved into the balbis, for runners to place their toes and get some leverage to launch themselves at the start of the race. Muscles tensed, coiled, and ready to commence, the ancient Greek stadion sprinters awaited the start of the race. Behind and to their sides hovered Olympic Games officials to ensure that nobody took off too early. Before them lay a packed earth track, at the end of which awaited another set of games officials.

In addition to deciding the winner, they were tasked with spotting and disqualifying any cheaters. If the race was too close and officials determined that it was a tie, there would be a do-over. Finally, the signal to start came – a sharp trumpet blow. The competitors exploded into action, took off, and within a few frantic seconds, the race was over. Since the stadion was the original Olympics’ sole sport competition, those few second were the entire athletic portion of the original Olympic Games. It is hard to grasp today just how important those few seconds were to the participants. The ancient Greeks often dated events not by a numbered calendar like we do, but by four year Olympiads that were named after the winner. So the stadion race’s victor literally won a place in the history books.

The Strangest Sports Stories In History
The goddess of victory crowns an Olympic Games winner. History Network

The First Olympics Champion

Because the ancient Greeks dated events based on four-year Olympiad cycles, the stadion race’s winner achieved a degree of fame and prestige difficult to grasp today. Since the Olympiad was named after him, from then on out, people would include his name whenever they referred to anything that happened in the four year cycle of his victory. Something along the lines of: “such and such happened in the first (or second, or third, or fourth) year of [Olympic Winner’s Name] Olympiad“.

Eventually, more athletic events were added to the competition, such as wrestling, boxing, javelin, discus, long jump, and chariot racing. However, the stadion retained its pride of place as the Olympic Games’ most prestigious event, and the four-year Olympiad cycles continued to be named after its victor. Because of that, historians can name just about every stadion winner. The first of them – and thus the first Olympics victor, was a cook from the city-state of Elis named Koroibos, who won the stadion in 776 BC.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Olympics – Nero

Barthel, Thomas – Abner Doubleday: A Civil War Biography (2010)

Best Glam Health and Lifestyle – Gladiator Sweat and Other Surprising Aphrodisiacs of the Ancient World

Bleacher Report – MMA History: How Pankration Champion Arrichion Won Olympic Crown After His Death

Bleacher Report – Cleveland Indians’ Ten Cent Beer Night: The Worst Idea Ever

Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Volume 75, Fall 2001 – The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme

Catton, Bruce – The Civil War, Three Volumes in One (1984)

Cleveland dot Com – Fans Riot on 10 Cent Beer Night: On This Day in Cleveland Indians History

Cleveland Magazine, May 24th, 2007 – The Experience: Swiping Jeff Borroughs’ Cap on 10-Cent Beer Night

CNN – Frank Hayes: The Jockey Who Won a Race Despite Being Dead

Cracked – The Dead Man Who Won a Horse Race

Daily Beast – Night Rock Fans Rioted to Kill Disco – at a Chicago Baseball Game

Daily Beast – Things You Probably Don’t Know About the Olympics

Doubleday, Abner – My Life in the Old Army (1998 Edition)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ancient Greek Olympic Games

Encyclopedia Britannica – Milo of Croton

Grunge – The Bizarre death of Milo of Croton

Historia Magazine, October 29th, 2020 – Gladiator Sweat and Leech Hair Dye; How to Survive in Ancient Rome

History Collection – 40 Facts About the Gladiators of Ancient Rome

Journal of Combative Sport, September, 2003 – Arrichion’s Last Fight: What Really Happened?

Miller, Stephen G. – Ancient Greek Athletics (2004)

National Public Radio – Being a Jockey Isn’t Just Horsing Around

NBC Chicago – Time Obscures Meaning of Disco Demolition

NBC Sports – Today in Baseball History: Indians Hold Infamous Ten Cent Beer Night

New York Times, June 5th, 1923 – Jockey Dies as He Wins His First Race; Hayes Collapses Passing the Winning Post

Ripley’s Believe it or Not – Frank Hayes: The Dead Man Who Won a Horse Race

Suetonius – The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Nero

Wise Geek – How Successful Was Emperor Nero at the Olympic Games?