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Ancient Performance Enhancers

The next summer Olympics will take place in Athens, Greece–the birthplace of the original Olympic Games. This return to origins might have us all imagining a simpler time when the Games were free of cheesy athlete biographies, judging scandals, and performance enhancing technology.

If only it were true. Even the ancient Greeks used performance enhancers in the form of leaden and stone hand weights called halteres, which weighed between four and twenty pounds. The proof is plain to see on many ancient Greek urns depicting Olympic athletes clutching these objects as they compete in the long jump.

It probably sounds counter intuitive: how can adding more weight to the body result in a longer jump? By engaging the jumper’s upper body muscles, the halteres added to the athlete’s overall power as he leaped into his jump. Greater force translated into greater momentum, resulting in a longer jump. Finally, swinging the weights back behind the body just before landing forced the legs forward to create even more distance.

This does not mean that the heavier the weights, the longer the jump. Depending on the jumper, the halteres had to fall within a certain weight range. Weights that were too light had no effect, and overly heavy weights merely slowed the jumper down. The original Greek Olympians might now be ancient history, but when it comes to competing for glory, they were dependant on performance enhancement.

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