Winning the top prize in the Olympics is considered the crowning achievement in the life of any athlete. Of course, there’s nothing that says this has to happen during the athlete’s life. All we have to do is look to Arrhichion, one of the greatest competitors in any Olympic event. He was so great, in fact, that he earned his final victory after breathing his last.
The ancient Olympic Games boasted several events that you will not find in their modern counterparts. One such event was the Pankration. It was, for all intents and purposes, an all-out street fight, without rules.
Actually, that isn’t quite true. There were two rules: no eye gouging and no biting. The competitions in Sparta discarded even those limiting factors, making the Pankration a bloody and brutal free-for-all.
Arrhichion (also spelled Arrhachion, Arrichion, or Arrachion) of Phigalia was the champion of the Pankration. He took the top prize at the 52nd and 53rd Olympiads in 572 BC and 568 BC. His technique was to use a combination of boxing and wrestling, sprinkled with a generous assortment of kicks, chokeholds, and joint locks.
In 564 BC, Arrhichion returned to the Olympic Games to defend his title. His opponent’s name has been lost to history. The other details of the epic battle were recorded by Pausanias and Philostratus the Younger. Pausanias wrote:
For when he was contending for the wild olive with the last remaining competitor, whoever he was, the latter got a grip first, and held Arrhachion, hugging him with his legs, and at the same time he squeezed his neck with his hands. Arrhachion dislocated his opponent’s toe, but expired owing to suffocation; but he who suffocated Arrhachion was forced to give in at the same time because of the pain in his toe. The Eleans crowned and proclaimed victor the corpse of Arrhachion.
As Philostratus recorded it:
Accordingly the antagonist of Arrichion, having already clinched him around the middle, thought to kill him; already he had wound his forearm about the other’s throat to shut off the breathing, while, pressing his legs on the groins and winding his feet one inside each knee of his adversary, he forestalled Arrichion’s resistance by choking him till the sleep of death thus induced began to creep over his senses. But in relaxing the tension of his legs he failed to forestall the scheme of Arrichion; for the latter kicked back with the sole of his right foot (as the result of which his right side was imperiled since now his knee was hanging unsupported), then with his groin he holds his adversary tight till he can no longer resist, and, throwing his weight down toward the left while he locks the latter’s foot tightly inside his own knee, by this violent outward thrust he wrenches the ankle from its socket.
In other words, Arrhichion’s opponent conceded the match, due to the excruciating pain of his dislocated toe, completely unaware of the fact that he was conceding to a guy who just died.
Arrhichion is thus remembered as an athlete who prevailed even in death. His opponent’s name has been forgotten, which must be a blessing for him. Otherwise, we would also be telling you the story of the guy who is remembered for having lost to a dead man.