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Ready, Set, Go! The Ancient Olympic Technology Of Fair Starts

A modern version of the ancient hysplex starting mechanism was reconstructed in the stadium at Nemea, Greece in 1993.

By Intel Free Press

When Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin kneel in the starting blocks for the men's 100 meters at the 2012 London Olympic Games, a phalanx of timing and monitoring equipment will ensure a fair start.

The cutting-edge technology that starts the race that unofficially crowns the world's fastest man actually descends from crude catapult tech used to start sprints at the ancient Greek Olympiad.

State-of-the-art in its day, a catapult-like contraption known as a hysplex was used to start footraces in Greece around the 5th century B.C. At a time when athletes competed in the nude, the hysplex made sure that no runner had an advantage.

Although the hysplex did become a trusted, official starting gate for sprints at many Panhellenic Games, it experienced its own kind of tragic false start.

"Judging from a failed attempt to create a starting mechanism at Isthmian Games perhaps a century before the one used at Nemea, there was a concern to guarantee an absolutely objective, fair start for all the runners," said Stephen Miller, University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus of Classical Archaeology.

Miller unearthed the athletic stadium at Ancient Nemea and led the excavation at the historic site for 30 years.

Ancient sources mention a man named Philon from the city of Corinth, where the Isthmian Games were held. "We know about him only one fact," said Miller. "He was fined by the authorities at (nearby)Epidauros for his failure to get the hysplex set up in time for their games around 300 B.C."

Philon or someone like him went on to invent the type of hysplex that would be used in Olympia, Epidauros and Isthmia.

"It became a standard until a generation or two later when the invention of the metal spring allowed for a simpler device," said Miller.

"Philon must have had a light-bulb go on when he watched the new-fangled catapults at work," he said.

"These machines had been invented either by Polydos of Thessaly during the siege of Byzantium around 340 B.C. or by his students Diades and Charias, who were in Alexander the Great's corps of engineers," The hysplex is an example of battlefield technology being adapted for use in the Olympic Games, according to Miller.

With the help of discoveries by the University of Athens Professor Panos Valavanis, Miller's team rebuilt a functioning hysplex that has been used during revivals of the Ancient Nemean Games, which have been held every 4 years since 1996.

The hysplex required constant attention, tightening and loosening of ropes. But the pull-chord triggered gate system was effective and slammed to the ground in front of the runners to start each race.

If a runner stepped or tripped on the ropes before the ropes hit the ground, the runner would be flogged with a switch made from a lygos tree, a type of flowering willow, by the judge and disqualified.

While the lygos switch disappeared from the Olympics, technology continues to play a significant role in maintaining a level playing field.

How the Hysplex Works

A modern version of the ancient hysplex was reconstructed in the stadium at Nemea, Greece in 1993 and has been used during revivals of the Ancient Nemean Games held every 4 years.

Two ropes are strung across the racing lanes and tied to wooden poles at each end of the starting line stone, called a balbis, where runners placed their toes.

Another set of ropes at the base of the two poles is twisted to create tension when the gate is lifted vertically into the starting position.

The gate is then held in place by a ring and cord fastened to larger stationary posts at each end.

The race official standing behind the runners would shout, "foot by foot, ready, go!" before pulling a chord attached to the rings that triggered the gate to slam to the ground in front of the runners and start the race.

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