Pigeons, Post, and Spartan Runners: Sports PR in the Ancient Olympics

By ancient Olympic Games standards, the recent Australian Special Olympics IX National Games, an event held for athletes with an intellectual disability, were relatively small. As the Communications Manager for the games, my job was manic, but fortunately I had a team of volunteers to help coordinate the multitude of print and broadcast media on event as well as updating the Special Olympics Australia website, facebook and twitter at regular intervals throughout the day.

Between frantic phone calls, tweets and manically hitting of the send email option, I did ponder for a moment how promoting and communicating results to the masses for an event such as this must have been in ancient times at the original Olympics. For one thing, the communications manager (if there was such a thing) would probably have been a lot less stressed as there were fewer modes of communication! But how on earth did they get the job done?

Ancient Communications

Old Roman roadIn ancient Greece and Rome, to get the most up to date news, unless you were ranking high enough to be sent a piece of papyrus, youd have to wander down to the local agora and look for messages or listen to a herald. The original heralds were thought to be Spartan runners, much like the ill-fated runner of the first Marathon.

Having found out the news from the local herald, it would thereafter have been word of mouth. Instead of an instant click of a PC or mobile phone, there would be a whisper in the ear and it would be several hours or days until the whole city and then neighbouring towns knew about it. Unfortunately word of mouth isnt necessarily the most reliable form of communication (although you still shouldnt believe everything you see in the papers or on the internet either).

For a forthcoming event, there would have been a lot more planning in its promotions. Many ancient events such as the Olympic Games were based on rituals and hence scheduled around planetary activity. In some cases ancient mechanical calendars were used to decide on the date of the games. Once the date was established, several days or even months of travelling would have to be factored in to get the message to the appropriate audience and still give them time to travel to the event.

The First Postal System

The Persians were allegedly the first to develop a postal system, put in place in about 540BC by Cyrus to control his new empire. Obviously having a system which could send and receive messages quicker than rivals was a distinct advantage, and Darius improved the system a generation later.

He extended the network of roads across the Persian Empire, which enabled both troops and information to move with startling speed. The royal road from Susa to Sardis, about 3200 km, has posting stations where new men and fresh horses would be available at any moment to carry a document through the next day’s journey. This system sped up the time a message spent in transit, enabling it to cover up to 200 miles a day.

The ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate pigeons and the ancient Greeks used pigeons to deliver messages from at least 5BC. Genghis Khan developed their potential fully, using them to carry news of each new conquest to back to Mongolia.

Beacons were used to denote victory or a warning, but fire was also used as part of the first semaphore system as described by the Greek historian Polybius (203-120 BCE). Both parties would have a set of five tablets on which the alphabet had been divided into groups of five letters. To send a message, the signalman raised a torch one to five times on his left side to signal the tablet from which the required alphabet would be obtained. He then signalled one to five times on his right side to denote the position of the character on that tablet.

And the Winner is….

Ancient Olympia Stadium - Site of the First OlympicsAs for publishing results, the Romans established a pretty elaborate display of gestures which could be read from afar where voices wouldnt carry. It should be noted at this point, contrary to what Hollywood tells us, the origins of thumbs up arent necessarily of Roman origin.

But for some fans, if they didnt live locally, they wouldnt find out if their favourite athlete or gladiator had won for several days.

A little different to today. Being cooped up in a press office most of the time, I saw very little of the Australian Special Olympics competitions but, thanks to email and mobile phones, I knew who’d won within minutes and could then distribute results to appropriate media at the click of a button.

On a personal note, and having mainly seen the four walls of a press office throughout the event, my lasting memory of the Special Olympics was participating in the parade of volunteers at the closing ceremony. As we did a lap of honour around the stadium to an audience of some 5000 people, the thunderous applause and sea of faces was positively overwhelming for those ancient competitors, being in a stadium of some 40,000 people, the experience would have been awesome.