Historical records suggest that male athletes used hand weights to give them greater power at liftoff during the standing long jump event, says Dr. Alberto E. Minetti, a professor of exercise physiology at Great Britain's Manchester Metropolitan University who studies the early days of sports. "Ancient Greek athletes intuitively found their way to use the optimal mass for that jump."
Minetti, who says the hand weights weren't a form of cheating, is proposing that track and field athletes adopt their use today.
Such a practice would be a blast from the past. "We certainly know that it was introduced on the 18th Olympiad, together with the other pentathlon specialties," Minetti says. "It was a standing jump where athletes swung their upper limbs back and forth at the sound of a flute, then left the ground to reach the maximum horizontal distance."
Artifacts show the Greek athletes used weights of between 2.5 and 10 pounds, Minetti says. They held the weights over their heads at the start of their jumps and moved them behind their backs as they completed them.
Minetti and colleagues have been studying how the weights could have affected the performance of the athletes. Their findings appear in tomorrow's issue of Nature.
The researchers found the use of weights increased the span of long jumps by 17 centimeters, or 6.7 inches. The weights work by displacing the body's center of mass, allowing for a longer "flight" time, and by encouraging better use of muscles, Minetti says.
"It is intuitive that if we jump with heavy luggage, we will certainly not fly a longer distance," he says. However, the Greeks discovered an optimum weight level that actually improved performance.
Since every standing long jump athlete used the weights, they weren't a form of cheating, he says. In fact, "there are many sports which use passive tools to enhance motion and locomotion, such as poles, skates, skis, fins and bicycles."
Other sports that emphasize jumping or the use of upper arms could benefit from the use of weights -- known as halteres -- held on the wrist, at least during practice, Minetti says. The sports include pole vaulting, ice skating, volleyball, ski jumping and even basketball.
However, modern athletes might not want to copy all performance-enhancing habits of Greek sportsmen. Just like athletes in the 21st century, they turned to superstition and drugs, too, says Charles Yesalis, a professor of health and human development at Pennsylvania State University who studies performance enhancers.
"It's part of human nature to seek an advantage if you're in competition, whether it's battle, business, or sport," Yesalis says.
Some ancient athletes would eat an animal heart for courage or testicles for potency. Greeks also relied upon wine concoctions and hallucinogenic drugs, he says. But no one minded too much. Only after World War I did athletic organizations begin to worry about the use of drugs by athletes, he says, even though powerful ones had been in use for decades.
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