XI

THROWING THE DISKOS

WE have seen that the word diskos¹³⁰ meant originally nothing more than a ‘thing for throwing’, and a thing for throwing might be any convenient object near at hand. A stone, a lump of metal, a tree trunk offered to early man a natural weapon or a means of testing his strength. From such simple objects are derived our modern sports of putting the weight or the shot, throwing the hammer or the caber. The diskos that Odysseus threw at the Phaeacian Games was a stone, the weight that Polypoetes flung at the funeral games of Patroclus was an unwrought solos, or pig of iron. The word ‘solos’, which is sometimes used by late poets as a synonym for diskos, means merely a boulder, a mass of stone or metal. Such was the stone that Bybon threw over his head (p. 54). The little bronze statuette in Fig. 23 represents an athlete ‘putting’ the stone in modern style, but the Greek did not put the diskos, he threw it, as we shall see, with an underhand swing.

The popular translation of ‘diskos’ by ‘quoit’ is singularly unfortunate. And still more so is the myth preserved in Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon, though deleted in the edition now appearing, that the diskos ‘had a hole in the centre for a wooden helve or leathern strap to swing it by’. For nothing is more certain than that the diskos, whether of stone or of metal, was solid and had nothing to do with a strap. The blunder preserved by generations of lexicographers probably had its origin in some game in which a round object was bowled along by means of a cord wound round it. A game of this sort called ‘ruzzola’ is still played on the roads in parts of Italy.

The diskos was a circular plate of stone or metal somewhat thicker in the centre than at the circumference. On the sixth-century black-figure vases it is usually shown as a thick white object (Figs. 131, 139), but the handier metal diskos must have come into use before the end of the century and seems to have been universal in the fifth century. Few stone diskoi have survived; the only specimens of which I have been able to obtain details (Figs. 112, 113) measure more than 11 inches in diameter and must have weighed when whole over 15 lb., approximately the weight of the stone or shot used in ‘putting’ to-day. Metal diskoi are far more numerous and vary considerably in size and weight. The only diskos that approaches in weight and size the stone diskoi is one dedicated at Olympia by one Publius Asclepiades in the year A. D. 241. It weighs above lb. The rest vary in diameter from to 9 inches, and in weight from 3 to 9 lb.

The difference in weight is remarkable. It is partly due to the fact that lighter weights were used by boys than by men, and partly to different practices at different festivals. The inscriptions on the sixth-century stone diskoi prove that they were used in actual competition; while the lightest specimen that we possess was also used in competition, for its sixth-century inscription tells us ‘Exoïdas dedicated me to the twin sons of Great Zeus, the bronze diskos wherewith he conquered the high-souled Kephal-lenians’ (Fig. 111).

With such differences in the weight of the diskos it is obvious that we have no means of estimating the standard attained by the Greek diskos-throwers. Phayllus, of jumping renown, according to the epigram, threw the diskos 95 feet; and Philostratus ¹³¹ speaks of Protesilaus as throwing beyond a hundred cubits, and that with a diskos twice the size of those used at Olympia. Statius, again, describes Phlegyas as throwing a diskos across the Alpheius.¹³² But such statements are worthless as we do not know the weights used. In the modern Olympic Games the diskos used weighs 2 kilos. The record throw in the free style is nearly 160 feet. In 1908 J. Sheridan, throwing in the cramped Hellenic style, succeeded in throwing 124 ft. 8 in.

The place from which the diskos was thrown was called the Balbis. It is described by Philostratus ¹³³ in a passage narrating the death of Hyacinthus who was accidentally killed by a diskos thrown by Apollo. ‘The balbis’, he says, ‘is small and sufficient for one man, marked off except behind, and it supports the right leg, the front part of the body leaning forward, while it takes the weight off the other leg which is to be swung forward and follows through with the right hand.’ The description is evidently based on Myron’s diskobolos. He continues: ‘The thrower is to bend his head to the right and stoop so as to catch a glimpse of his (right) side and to throw the diskos with a rope-like pull, putting all the force of his right side into the throw.’

From this passage we learn that the balbis was marked off by a line in front and by lines on either side but not behind, so that the thrower could take as many steps as he pleased. It is natural to suppose that in the stadium the diskos and spear were thrown from the line of stone slabs already described which were called balbides, but for this we have no direct evidence.

METAL DISKOI

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111. Bronze Diskos in the British Museum. Inscribed :

‘Eχσoíδς μ’ v θη ε ΔιΓòς o( )ρoις μεγ λoιo χ λ εoν νí ασε Kεφαλ(λ) νας μεγαθ μoυς.

6th century. The details of this (no. 15) and other diskoi are given in the following list.

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They are all of bronze except no. 3 which is of lead. Nos. 8 and 10 are engraved with the figure of a jumper on one side, javelin-thrower on the other. Both belong to the 5th century u. c., but their flatness and the sharpness of their edges makes it probable that they were votive offerings not intended for use. This was certainly the case with no. 1, which is dated from the inscription Ol. 255 (A. D. 241). See Jüthner, Ant. Turn., p. 18; J.H.S. xxvii, p. 5.

STONE DISKOI

112, 113. Two stone diskoi, New York, Gallatin Collections. Sotheby’s Sale Catalogue, May 1929, nos. 89, 90. Photographs by Professor B. Ashmole.

112. Diameter in., weight 14 lb. 10 oz., originally at least 15 lb. In the centre remains of painted decoration. Inscribed EK TΩN AΘΛΩN, ‘From the Games’. 6th century.

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113. Diameter in., weight 13 lb. 12 oz., originally at least 15 lb. Inscribed: TEAE(ΣAP)XO(ϒ) EK TO(Y) HPIO(Y), ‘Belonging to Telesarchos from the barrow’. The barrow was presumably the tomb of the hero in whose honour the games were held. 6th century.

A third stone diskos is figured by Schröder, Sport im Altertum, Fig. 56. [See also Jacobsthal Diskoi pp. 18–23.]

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114. DISKOS-THROWER; THE BACKWARD SWING

Interior of r.-f. kylix, Boston, of which the exterior is given in Fig. 105

The throw was measured from the balbis to the place where the diskos or spear fell, and it is obvious that competitors might not overstep the line. The direction was limited by the breadth of the stadium, and a throw that fell outside did not count. The place where the diskos fell was marked by a peg ; in Fig. 115 we see a diskobolos in the act of marking the spot.

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115. Marking the throw of the diskos. Attic r.-f. kylix, About 525 B. C. Würzburg, 467. Jüthner, Ant. Turn. Fig. 27. Drawn from a photograph. The youth is either placing or pulling up the mark

Throwing the diskos has acquired a practical interest owing to the modern revival of this event; but the modern method of throwing is very different from the ancient method. We can reconstruct the latter from numerous representations on vases, gems, coins, in statuettes, and in two life-size statues, the so-called Standing Diskobolos in the Vatican Museum and the Diskobolos of Myron (Figs. 116, 117). In interpreting the lesser monuments, such as vases and coins, it is important to remember that the artist is often influenced by laws of composition and the shape of the space that he has to fill, and that apparent divergences are often due to differences of space and material. Further, there were as many differences in style in throwing the diskos as there are in swinging a golf club. But though it is impossible to force all the representations of a diskos-thrower into a single series, there was only one principle, and it is embodied in the Diskobolos of Myron. The motive of this statue is reproduced on gems, coins, and reliefs. On it are based the scanty descriptions of this event in Lucian and Philostratus, and the latter significantly adds in the passage quoted above which describes the death of Hyacinthus, ‘This was how Apollo threw the diskos. Indeed he could not have thrown it any other way.’

THE DISKOBOLOS

116. THE STANDING DISKOBOLOS. Marble copy of bronze statue about 400 B. C., found near Rome. In the Vatican. The head is ancient but does not belong to the statue. The true head is preserved in a replica in the Museo dei Conservatori, Braccio Nuovo, in Rome. The right elbow and most of the fingers are modern. The tree trunk support is an addition of the copyist. For a discussion of the many replicas of this statue, see Sieveking in Text to Brunn-Brückmann’s Denkmäler nos. 682–5, and Mustilli, Il Museo Mussolini, pl. 73 and pp. 115–16.

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117. MYRON’S DISKOBOLOS. Marble copy of bronze statue by Myron, about 450 B. C. Photograph from composite cast which combines a body in the Terme Museum at Rome and the head in the Lancelotti Collection, Brunn-Brückmann, 566. For illustrations of various replicas see Brunn-Brückmann, nos. 256, 631, 632, 681, and for the latest literature on the subject see Sieveking in Text to no. 681 ; B. Schröder, Arch. Anz., xxxvii. 614; xxxv. 61; Jüthner, Jahreshefte des Oesterr. Arch. Inst., xxiv, p. 123. [For the Lancellotti diskobolos, now in the Terme Museum, Rome, see Enrico Paribeni in Boll. d’Arte 1949, pp. 289–92, and his Museo Nazionale Romano, Sculture greche del V secolo pp. 22–3].

[On representations of discus-throwers see also Bellugue in Gazette des Beaux-Arts 1936, ii, pp. 69–82, and Villard in Mon. Piot, 47, pp. 35–43.]

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THE DISKOBOLOS

118, 119. These two drawings illustrate the attempts of the vase painters in the generation before Myron to represent the actual throw of the diskos. In Fig. 133 we see a yet earlier attempt to grapple with the same problem. The coins of Cos (Fig. 35) also belong to the first half of the fifth century. The Panathenaic amphora (Fig. 132) is about 430 B. C. To attempt to arrange these more or less impressionist attempts in a consecutive series is obviously impossible.

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118. DISKOS-THROWER, THE THROW. Attic r.-f. kylix. About 480 B. C. Louvre. Hartwig, Meisterschalen, lxiii, n. 2. In this and in Fig. 119 the left foot rests on the extreme point of the toe as in Myron’s statue. It is difficult to feel certain as to the exact moment represented. Formerly I held that it was the moment in the swing back preceding that of the statue. But from the position of the head I am inclined to think that Jüthner is right and that these figures belong to the forward swing when the left foot is just leaving the ground. Jüthner, l.c.

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119. DISKOS-THROWER, THE THROW. Drawing from r.-f. kylix. About 480 B. C. Villa Giulia, Rome. Dedalo, iv, pp. 735, 736. For the scene on the other side see Fig. 46.

Myron’s statue was of bronze: it is known to us only in marble copies, and some of these, including that in the British Museum, are wrongly restored with the head facing the direction of the throw. As we know from the only copy where the head is preserved, the head was turned backwards to the right. This turn of the head actually helps the swing of the body, whereas if the head is kept stationary the turn of the shoulder is slightly checked.

Another point to be noticed is the peculiar position of the left foot resting on the tip of the toes which are even turned back and dragging. This position seems to some modern critics so unnatural and indeed impossible that they have argued that our existing replicas are all wrong, and have tried to reconstruct the statue with a flatter foot.¹³⁴ In support of this they point to certain late reliefs and gems where the foot is in its natural position. But we must remember that the Greek athlete, who was usually barefooted, had not lost the use of his toes as we have owing to the crippling effect of boots, and that his toes were probably as strong as his fingers. Moreover, in this particular instance the weight rests entirely on the right foot and there is little or no strain on the left. Further, this position with the left foot on tiptoe is also represented on fifth-century vases (Figs. 118, 119, 132, 133) and on the coins of Cos (Fig. 35). Finally, no reason can be shown why a late copyist should have introduced a less natural and more difficult position of the foot, if in Myron’s original statue the foot had been in what seems to us the more natural position.

Myron has chosen to represent a moment between the backward swing and the forward swing where there is an apparent pause. I say ‘apparent’ because, as Jüthner has recently shown,¹³⁵ there is really no check in the movement which is continuous, the right arm continuing to move backwards even while the left foot is lifted off the ground, and this is skilfully indicated by the dragging of the toes which shows that the forward movement of the left leg is actually beginning. The thrower, raising the diskos level with his head in both hands, has swung it vigorously downwards and backwards in his right hand, at the same time turning his whole body and his head to the right. The right leg, which is advanced, is the pivot on which the whole body turns, the left foot and left arm merely helping to preserve the balance. We may note, too, the rope-like pull of the right arm. This turn of the body round a fixed point is the essence of the swing of the diskos. The force comes not from the arm, which serves only to connect the body and the weight, but from the lift of the thighs and the swing of the body. The thrower gets his weight into the throw.

Such was the principle of the throw; but in the preliminary movements there was considerable variety. There were at least two positions for the stance. One of them is represented in the ‘Standing Diskobolos’, a statue which in spite of other interpretations does, I am still convinced, represent a diskobolos taking his stance. The weight is still on the left leg, but he has carefully planted his right foot in front and is looking downwards at the balbis line, measuring the distance so as not to overstep it. It is not, as has been asserted, the attitude of prayer, but of preparation for action. The thrower then, after rubbing the diskos with sand to prevent it from slipping, takes his stance holding the diskos by his side in his left hand, and swings it up in his left hand or possibly in both hands till it is level with his head. Then, if he has not already done so, he grasps it with his right hand. This position with the diskos held to the front in both hands is the beginning of the backward swing and is constantly represented on vases (Figs. 21, 122, 129). From this position, if the right foot is in front he swings the diskos downwards in his right hand till he reaches the position of Myron’s statue without any change of foot. Frequently, however, the diskobolos is represented holding the diskos in both hands with the left foot forward. Either he has taken up his stance with the left foot forward (Figs. 120, 121) or he has advanced it as he swings the diskos upwards. How, then, does he reach the position of Myron’s statue? Two solutions are possible. Either he takes a step forward with the right foot, or he draws back the left foot. The former was the method adopted by the competitors in the first Olympic Games held at Athens in 1896. Starting with the left foot forward the thrower raised the diskos in both hands to a level with his head and at the moment of swinging it back advanced the right foot, taking another step forward with the left in making the throw. This method requires room for two or, if the thrower starts with right leg forward, for three steps, the impetus being helped by the forward movement. The other method requires room only for one step, and the pendulum-like ‘swing’ of the left leg, first forward, then back, and finally forward again, is at least equally effective, as helping the swing of the body like the preliminary waggle of a golf club. From the vases it seems possible that both methods were practised.

THE STANCE AND PRELIMINARY MOVEMENTS

A. DISKOS SWUNG FORWARD IN LEFT HAND.

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120. Figure from Attic r.-f. kylix. Berlin, 2284. About 500 B. C. Pfuhl, Malerei, 450.

121, 122. Figures from r.-f. kylix. Munich, 2637. Arch. Zeit. 1878, pl. XI. The heads are partly restored.

In all three figures the left leg is advanced, but the same motive occurs with the right leg forward. Thus with 120 cp. the standing Diskobolos (Fig. 116); the position of 121 is well shown on a r.-f. kylix in the Louvre, G. 292; with 122 cp. 129, left leg forward, 21, right leg forward.

B. DISKOS RAISED LEVEL WITH THE HEAD IN LEFT HAND.

123. Attic r.-f. amphora by Phintias, late 6th century: Louvre. F.R. 112.

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124. Attic r.-f. amphora by Euthymides, late 6th century. Munich, 2308. F.R.81; Pfuhl, Masterpieces, p.40. The diskos-thrower here is called Phayllos, and probably represents the famous pentathlete of that name (p. 152). Notice the thumb on the inside of the diskos, and compare Figs. 126, 130, 129.

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An alternative stance is represented in some bronze statuettes (Figs. 125–7) and on many vases (Figs. 123, 124, 130). The thrower holds the diskos in his left hand level with the head. He then grasps it with his right hand and raises it in both hands above his head. It will be observed that in this position the thumb of the left hand is on the inside, the fingers outside, while in the first style the position of the hand is reversed. A bronze in the British Museum (Fig. 127) carries the movement a little further and shows the transition to the downward swing. The diskos instead of being upright lies flat on the right hand. In this stance sometimes the left, sometimes the right foot is in front, and there is the same evidence of change of feet as in the first style.

The position of the diskos flat in the right hand and resting against the forearm is the characteristic of the backward swing, another movement frequently depicted. There are many varieties of this motive. Some of them are due to artistic considerations, to the shape of the space that the artist wishes to fill. Others are due to the different movements in the swing represented. At the beginning of the swing the body is upright or even inclined backwards (Fig. 122), then it assumes a stooping position (Figs. 114, 128). But all these variations belong to the same movement, the backward swing. In all of them the diskos is held flat against the forearm, remaining in this position till the arm has passed the leg, while the left arm is extended sideways or raised over the head to help the balance of the body, for on the balance the success of the throw depends. Here, too, there is evidence of change of foot. In the forward position the left foot is usually in front, and it may continue so momentarily at the beginning of the backward swing. Usually, however, the right foot is advanced forming the pivot on which the body turns, as in Myron’s statue. This is clearly shown in the bronze illustrated in Fig. 128 where the heel of the left foot is already raised.

Most of the representations of the top of the backward swing are evidently based on Myron’s statue, but there is an interesting variation on the fifth-century coins of Cos (Fig. 35), where a diskobolos is represented beside a prize tripod. An examination of a series of these coins proves that the artist has attempted the difficult task of representing this position from the front. But the amount of foreshortening required is too much for him and he is cramped by want of space. So instead of showing the body stooping forward he turns it sideways. Further, as the diskos if shown sideways would be hardly intelligible, he gives a full view of it. The position of the left arm raised above the head may be due to a difference in style, or to exigencies of space.

THE STANCE AND PRELIMINARY MOVEMENTS

Figs. 125–7. Bronze Statuettes of Diskobolos showing three consecutive positions starting from stance B.

125. THE STANCE. Bronze statuette found in Peloponnese. Height in. 480–470 B.C. New York, Metropolitan Museum, 07.286.87.

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126. DISKOS RAISED ABOVE HEAD IN BOTH HANDS. Bronze statuette found in Boeotia. Height about in. About 480 B. C. Athens, National Museum, no. 7412. Stais, i, p. 270.

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127. BEGINNING OF DOWNWARD SWING. Etruscan bronze statuette. Height in. About 500 B. c. British Museum, 675. J.H.S. xxvii, p. 22.

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128. THE DOWNWARD SWING. Etruscan bronze statuette. Height a little more than 3 in. About 500 B. C. London, Esmond Durlacher Collection. Burlington Fine Arts Club Catalogue, 1903, pl. 50. This bronze represents the backward swing.

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129. DISKOS HELD TO FRONT IN BOTH HANDS. Attic r.-f. neck-amphora. About 480 B. c. Madrid. Drawing by Professor Beazley. The fingering of the left hand shows that the diskos has been swung up from stance A.

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130. DISKOS HELD HIGH IN LEFT HAND. Attic r.-f. column-krater. About 490 B.C. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 561. The same position as Figs. 123, 125, but the thrower seems about to step forward with the left foot. New photograph.

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131. THE DOWNWARD SWING. Attic b.-f. neck-amphora. Late 6th century. British Museum, B. 271. J.H.S. xxvii, pl. I. For the position with diskos flat in the right hand cp. Figs. 114, 128. In this as in many b.-f. vases a large white stone diskos is represented.

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‘The diskobolos’, says Lucian, speaking of the statue, ‘seems as if he would straighten himself up at the throw.’ ¹³⁶ At the beginning of the forward swing the extensor-muscles come into play and by a vigorous lift from the right thigh the whole body is straightened. This momentary but most important movement is clearly depicted on a Panathenaic vase in Naples (Fig. 132), and a slightly later position on a vase in the British Museum (Fig. 133). The attitude shown is unique in Greek athletic art which prefers positions of comparative rest and equilibrium. But here we have a sort of snapshot, an impressionist picture of a position almost too momentary to be seen, certainly too unstable to maintain. On the Panathenaic vase especially the thrower seems to be flying from the ground in a way that suggests the figure of winged victory. But the diskobolos has no wings, and unless he promptly recovers his equilibrium by advancing the left foot he must fall to the ground. As Philostratos says in the passage quoted above, ‘The left foot must be swung forward and follow through with the right hand’, and it is off the left foot that the actual throw takes place (Figs. 134, 135).

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132. The throw of the diskos. B.-f. Panathenaic amphora. Late 5th century. Naples. J.H.S. xxvii, p. 32; Jahreshefte, xxiv, p. 140, Fig. 128. An impressionist view of the moment when the left foot leaves the ground, cp. coins of Cos, Fig. 35 d, and Fig. 133. This position must precede that shown in Figs. 118, 119, where the head has been turned forward. In all these attempts to represent the actual throw it is extremely difficult to co-ordinate rightly the movements of arms, legs, body, head. The Greek had no camera to help him.

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133. Diskobolos and flute-player, trainer, youth seated fastening the amentum. Attic r.-f. hydria. Late 6th century. British Museum, E. 164. B.C.H. xxiii (1899), p. 164; J.H.S. xxvii, p. 32. The position is similar to that of 132, but later; the diskos is already swinging down.

On the Panathenaic vase we notice that the hand holding the diskos is turned outwards, and the same peculiarity is found on the coins of Cos and on a few other vases. Here again we have a variation of style, and it is interesting to note that the same variation occurs in the modern method of throwing the diskos. For while most throwers swing the diskos back with the hand turned inwards, some, as on our vase, turn the hand outwards.

A summary of the movements described may be useful:

The Stance:

position of Standing Diskobolos with diskos in left hand;

diskos held in both hands level with waist; or

diskos raised in left hand level with the head.

The thrower may take up his stance with either foot forward. From these positions, with or without change of foot, the diskos is raised to:

Position with diskos held in both hands:

(a)extended horizontally to the front;

(b)raised above the head.

The left foot is usually forward.

The diskos is swung downwards, resting on the right forearm. If the left foot is forward, either before or in the course of the swing

(a)the left foot is drawn back, or

(b)the right foot is advanced.

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134. Diskos thrower, javelin thrower. Attic r.-f. kylix. Late 6th century. Boulogne, Musée Communal. Le Musée, ii, p. 281. The diskos thrower has here advanced his left leg, but his head is still turned backwards.

Position of Myron’s diskobolos:

At the beginning of the swing forward the body is straightened.

As the diskos swings down the left foot is vigorously advanced.

After the diskos has left the hand, the right foot is again advanced.

We see, then, that while the principle implied in Myron’s statue remained fixed, there was considerable diversity in style and in detail. It was essentially a ‘free style’. When diskos-throwing was revived at the end of the last century various styles were tried. The Greeks, regarding many of these as unorthodox, devised what they considered to be the true ‘Hellenic style’. First the throw was to be made from a small platform 80 cm. long by 70 cm. wide with a height of 15 cm. behind and 5 cm. in front. The only authority for this form of ‘balbis’ was a misinterpretation of an old corrupt text of Philostratus. Again, because Myron’s diskobolos had his right foot forward it was ordained that the thrower must keep his right foot forward till the completion of the throw, and further that the diskos must be kept in the same plane, swung straight backwards and forwards and not round the body. For none of these restrictions was there any justification, and the ‘Hellenic style’ has now died a natural death.

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135. The throw of the diskos. Etruscan b.-f. hydria. Early 5th century. Vienna. Masner, p. 38. A position a little later than 134.

The modern free style unfortunately has abandoned the principle of the Greek throw and is based on experience gained in throwing the hammer or the shot. The diskos is thrown from a circle and the throw is measured to the inner edge of the circle along a line drawn from the place where the diskos falls to the centre. No throw is allowed to count unless the diskos falls within a sector of 90 degrees marked on the ground. Direction, therefore, is of little importance. The thrower takes his stand with the feet well apart and body well balanced, and gripping the diskos firmly in the right hand swings it a few times to and fro from left to right. He then pivots quickly on the left foot, and directly the right foot touches the ground makes the throw, the left foot swinging round and striking the ground so as to keep the body from going out of the ring. At the moment before the heave the thrower is sometimes almost in the position of Myron’s diskobolos, as can be seen from Tait McKenzie’s diskos-thrower (Fig. 31). Indeed a partial turn of the body is by no means incompatible with the position of the statue. But the complete turn of the body is fatal to the accuracy required by Greek conditions. Some modern athletes make two complete turns, but it is doubtful if any advantage is gained thereby.

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