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A long jump - Letters - Letter to the Editor

The first literary mention of the ancient Greek athletic event known as the long jump, whose biomechanics are discussed in Adam Summers's column "Throwing Yourself into It" [4/03], is in book VIII of the Odyssey. Homer presents it as an after-dinner contest performed for Odysseus, but makes no mention of the use of halteres, or weights, by the jumpers.

Mr. Summers asserts that the competitive long jump was a standing event; on the contrary, it seems to have been a running jump. That interpretation arises in part from the fact that ancient Greek has words for the jumper's takeoff board (bater) and his earthen landing pit (skamma), neither of which should have been necessary for a standing jump. Halteres may have been used at times for the standing long jump, but probably not for the competitive event. Several literary sources recount long jumps exceeding fifty feet.

The first Olympic victor in the long jump was Lampis of Sparta, who in 708 B.C. won the pentathlon--a contest consisting of five separate events, including the long jump. The earliest vase paintings that depict jumping with weights date from the sixth century, and the oldest surviving weights from about 600 B.C. So one might ask whether and how Lampis and other early long jumpers actually used weights. Philostratos, a third-century A.D. sophist, tells us that halteres--a "sure guide for the hands and for bringing the feet cleanly to the ground"--were invented by the pentathletes themselves; judging by his comment that halteres were good for the shoulders and hands, athletes probably would have used them as dumbbells are used today--as training weights.

David Gilman Romano

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Both standing and running long jumps may have been ancient Olympic events. The jump shown on many vases certainly appears to be a standing long jump, because the arms are moving together. In a running long jump the arms are out of phase, one behind and the other in front. It's difficult to envision a biomechanical benefit for halteres in that kind of jump.

In reference to the fifty-plus-foot jumps, some scholars believe those figures result from combining the outcomes of several standing long jumps.

Biologists have adopted the term "halteres" to refer to the rear vestigial "wings," or balancers, in dipterans (two-winged flies, mosquitoes, gnats, and so on). Curiously, in the fruit fly, a single gene mutation is capable of making the halteres revert to a second set of wings, thus anatomically removing the mutated flies from the order Diptera.

Frank Sturtevant

Sarasota, Florida

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