Today, we learn how to start a foot race. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In the early days of Greek
foot-racing, starting the runners was a big
problem. They had nothing so abrupt as a gunshot to
signal a start. And runners faced a nasty dilemma:
if they started early they'd be flogged. If they
didn't, they'd lose the race.
Now an odd book by Panos Valavanis. Hysplex: The
Starting Mechanism in Ancient Stadia. Into this
dense research monograph Valavanis pours the
detective skills of a historian, an archaeologist,
a linguist and an engineer. And it's all to answer
the seemingly minor question, "How did the Greeks start a foot race?"
The question does summon up a rich web of metaphor.
Starting the race was like a birth - beginning the
race of life itself. Starting together meant
concord and unanimity. And so on.
Two new words, balbis and hysplex,
begin appearing as literary metaphors in the fifth
century BC. While writers say nothing about
starting mechanisms, balbis appears to refer
to a stone gutter across the racetrack. It
positions runners' feet at the start. We can see
those balbes today in ancient arenas.
The word hysplex is harder to pin down. It has to
do with starting, but what was its function?
Valavanis eventually finds writers who speak of the
hysplex falling. That clue finally makes
sense when he finds a broken amphora from 344 BC.
On it is a picture of runners, standing in the
balbis. The picture is broken, but fragments of the
starting mechanism remain. Combining what he sees
on the Amphora, with remains in the old stadiums,
he finally pieces together how the hysplex worked.
At either end of the balbis gutter were posts.
Twisted ropes within the balbis served as springs
which normally held each post flat against the
ground. The posts were then hauled up to a vertical
position and held in place against the springs by
triggers. Cords, stretched between the posts,
formed the starting barrier. When a starter, behind
the runners, jerked the trigger cords, the posts
snapped downward throwing the barrier cord to the
ground in front of the runners. And the game was
Stephen Miller, who translated Valavanis'
painstaking study, adds an appendix telling how he
himself built an entire hysplex apparatus and
staged foot races to test it. His photos show a
nice clean starting process. The cord springs away
from the runners' midsections far more quickly than
they can move. The start is flawless. Miller even
lists the cost of building his hysplex. It came to
a third of a million Drachmas -- just over a
And we're left wondering what to make of this labor
-- so much fuss for so little return. Then we
realize we're seeing the ancients in a new
dimension of flesh and blood. An Athens scaled down
to human proportion is both less and more than
heroes and philosophers carved in stone. As modern
athletes spring from the ancient balbis, the old
world itself springs into life once more. And we
realize that game is, indeed, worth the candle.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds