Go, Tigers! Go, Bulldogs! Go, Krotoniates! Krotoniates? Well, if you want a classically inspired nickname for your team, you might look beyond Troy and Sparta to Kroton, a Greek colony on the instep of the Italian boot that dominated the Olympic Games for 100 years, from 588 to 484 B.C., the period when the Games emerged as the major Panhellenic festival. In the process, the name Kroton became synonymous in the Greek world with health and athletic prowess.
The ancient Games' glamour event was the stadion race of approximately 200 meters—the next four years in the Greek system of dating bore the winner's name—and in that 104-year span Kroton won 12 of 27 races in this event. In one Olympic meet, the first seven finishers in the stadion were from Kroton, prompting the saying, "The last of the Krotoniates was the first among all other Greeks."
The most celebrated athlete of that period was Milo of Kroton, a wrestler whose achievements and feats of strength became legend. Milo won the boys' wrestling at the 536 Olympics, moved up to the men's category in 532 and proceeded to win in the next five Games. Going for his seventh straight Olympic title in 512, he was beaten in the final by a younger Krotoniate who refused to engage him at close quarters and finally wore him down. All told, Milo won 32 titles at the four major Panhellenic festivals; he was a periodonike, or Grand Slam winner, five times.
Milo's feats of strength rivaled his Olympic victories. It is said that he could hold a pomegranate so tightly that no one could pry open his hand, yet at the same time not squeeze the fruit so hard as to bruise it. He would stand on a greased discus and dare anyone to knock him off; no one could. And there were stories of gastronomic excess. One time he is supposed to have carried a bull around the stadium at Olympia, slaughtered and eaten it in one day.
Krotoniates excelled in many sports. An athlete named Pha√ølos once awed the crowd by overleaping the long-jump pit in the Pythian Games at Delphi. Alas, poor Pha√ølos broke his leg in the process. He never won at Olympia, either. In 480, when he was in his prime, he skipped the Games, instead commanding a ship at the Battle of Salamis and helping to save Greece from the invading Persians.
A number of factors apparently contributed to the Krotoniates' athletic preeminence. At the beginning of the sixth century B.C., Kroton was a prosperous center of sea and agricultural trade, so the citizens were rich enough to have time to spend on sports. Athletic competitions held during the festival of a local deity, the Lacinian Hera, provided young Krotoniates with an Olympic dress rehearsal comparable to East Germany's Spartakiade. But many other Greek settlements also were wealthy and had similar competitions. Kroton's edge on its rivals was sports medicine. The city was the site of a medical school that was reputed to produce some of the best doctors of the ancient world. At that time, medical practice consisted largely of regulating a patient's diet and daily regimen. One way physicians learned about the human body was by observing athletes in the gymnasium; in return they offered training advice. Thus citizens of Kroton became the classical world's most physically fit, and 500 years later, "more healthful than Kroton" was still an expression signifying top-notch condition.
Sport also found encouragement in a philosophy, Pythagoreanism, that was popular among Krotoniates. Pythagoras aimed for a healthy balance between mind and body. In order to remain "always in the same condition," in the words of one adherent, "not at one time lean and at another overburdened with flesh," Pythagoreans recommended daily workouts involving running, wrestling and jumping, as well as a strict diet.
The beginning of the end of Kroton's athletic hegemony came when a runner named Astylos decided to become what was surely the world's first free agent. Astylos was a double winner in both the 488 and 484 Olympic Games, placing first in the stadion and the diaulos, a race of approximately 400 meters. In the 480 Olympiad he won the double again—but imagine everyone's surprise when the herald announced him as a citizen of Syracuse, a Sicilian city. It turned out that the Sicilian tyrant, Hieron, had been more than willing to open up his pocket-book to acquire for Syracuse the glory of Olympic victory. Later, Hieron was also successful in recruiting two literary free agents, the poet Pindar and the dramatist Aeschylus, to Syracuse. Back in Kroton, meanwhile, the hometown fans reacted violently to Astylos's defection. They tore down the statue of him that had been erected near the grounds of the temple of the Lacinian Hera, and they converted his house into a prison.
Kroton's domination ended suddenly. No Krotoniate won a victory in any of the four Grand Slam festivals after 480. Historians surmise that a decline in wealth and power forced the people to abandon leisurely pursuits like athletics, but sports fans can imagine other scenarios. Maybe free agency depleted the ranks of great athletes competing for Kroton—look what happened to the Oakland A's after the 1976 baseball season. Or perhaps Astylos's defection so embittered the people that they just swore off sports altogether.
Though its power declined, Kroton's fame—and name—endured to the end of the classical era. Is there no college athletic director with a struggling program who dares to resurrect a great tradition and send his teams out to fight as Krotoniates? Merely adopting the name of ancient Greece's sporting powerhouse may well work wonders. But Coach, try to keep your best athletes from transferring to Syracuse.
Ed Burns graduated from Dartmouth Phi Beta Kappa with high honors in history.