Greek Discus

Cast of a Reproduction in Discophoros Series - Greek Discus
Cast of a Reproduction in Discophoros Series

The Greek discus was a throwing disc used during the pentathlon, an event featured at the ancient Olympic Games, Nemean Games, and Pythian Games. The Greek word diskos originally meant “a thing thrown,” though over the years, its definition in ancient Greek culture had evolved to denote a specific object. Initially, these discus competitions used any stone of roughly the appropriate shape and size, though these eventually evolved into specially carved discs, and the stone material was later interchanged for metal. This specially crafted discus was sometimes made of iron, but was most commonly made of bronze.


Structure

The bronze discus was introduced sometime before 5th century BC. Of those discovered, the most common size appears to have been 9 inches (23 cm) in diameter, weighing about 4.4 pounds (2 kgs), though there is no known official standard for the ancient Panhellenic games. Different sizes were used for different age categories, however, as boys used a smaller disus than grown men did. The faces of these bronze discs often featured artistic engravings of animals, concentric circles, crosses, and dots.

When the discus was not in use, it was kept in a sling with two ends tied up in a knot. On ancient Greek vases, it is often depicted hanging on a wall or in the hands of a youth.

Discuses, or diskoi, were sometimes created exclusively for ceremonial dedication, somewhat like a trophy. These could be made out of more fragile material, like marble, since they were not intended for actual use.


Athletic Usage

The athlete would rub sand on the discus and his hands to secure his grip. He would approach the balbis, a stone slab that likely could have been the same marker for the beginning of the stadium track. There, he would take a stance similar to that of the famous Discophoros statue (not Discobolus, pictured below), with the discus in his right hand and his right foot in front of him. He would carefully measure the ground before him, calculating the amount of space required to not overstep the boundary line with his left leg during the final swing.

Next, he would swing the discus forward and hold it horizontally in front of him. Depending on his personal technique, he would grasp it either with his right hand or with both hands. His body could have been upright or slightly inclined backwards, and the left leg is often depicted as being forward at that point. This may have been to measure the distance for his final step without crossing the line before him.

Myron's Discobolus (2nd century AD)
Myron’s Discobolus (2nd century AD)

In a fluid motion, he would lift the discus overhead. From the overhead position, he would swing the discus downward and backwards in his right hand and draw the left leg back. Pivoting on the right foot, he would turn his head and bend his body to the right. At the end of this backwards swing, he would be in the position of Myron’s famous Discobolus statue.

At the beginning of the final swing forward, a vigorous push from the right thigh would cause the whole body to rise and straighten. The left foot would swiftly swing forward with the right arm. The force of the throw would not come from his arms alone, but rather from the lift of his thighs and the swing of his body. As the discus left the right hand, the athlete would follow through with the right foot.

The throw was measured from the front of the measuring line to the place where it fell, where it was marked with a peg called a semeion. The farthest of the athlete’s five throws was recorded.

Bibliography

Sweet, W. E. (1987). Sport and recreation in ancient Greece: A sourcebook with translations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Scanlon, T. F. (2014). Sport in the Greek and Roman worlds. Vol 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zarnowski, F. (2013). The pentathlon of the ancient world. McFarland.

Diab, M. (1999). Lexicon of orthopaedic etymology. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic.

Golden, M. (1998). Sport and society in ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.