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Verbal Energy

Is your vocabulary in shape for the Olympics?

It turns out that the biggest sport at this summer's Games is something called 'athletics.'

By Ruth Walker / July 7, 2012

Do you know the difference between the "modern" pentathlon and the ordinary plain-vanilla "ancient" one? Can you tell "artistic gymnastics" from "rhythmic gymnastics"? Do you know the four flavors of cycling on display at this year's Olympic Games?

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After I decided to look into the vocabulary of the Olympics, my most surprising finding was that "athletics" is itself a sport. Indeed, it's "the largest single sport at the Games," according to the London 2012 website.

Our English athlete traces back to the Greek athletes, a prizefighter, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It goes back to a Greek verb, athlein, meaning "to contest for a prize."

Athletics was probably formed by analogy with gymnastics, which originates with another Greek verb meaning to exercise or train, or more literally "to train naked."

Athletics, according to London 2012, "is the perfect expression of the Olympic motto 'Citius, Altius, Fortius' ('Faster, Higher, Stronger')." All those events, such as the discus throw and shot put, that we associate with the Olympic Games – 47 of them, with 2,000 athletes competing – collectively add up to a single sport known as "athletics."

These "ics" words for disciplines or branches of study can be tricky. They're generally singular, but can be plural: "Economics is an important subject to study," we might say. But: "The politics of the farm bill are very complex."

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that "ics," instead of "ic," became the fashion during the 1500s. It appears to have been an instance of trying to get English to follow Greek grammar rules. Subject matters whose names in English were settled before 1500 tend to have singular names: arithmetic, logic.

One of the best-known events of "athletics" is the marathon, which goes back to the first modern Games, in 1896, and was "designed specifically to pay homage to Ancient Greece." But if you think the familiar 26.2 miles measured the road from Marathon to Athens, as I did, you would be wrong.

The first modern marathons were around 25 miles. But at the London Games of 1908 the distance was extended to 26.2 miles so that it finished in front of the Royal Box.

At this year's Olympics, under the supervision of its two mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, who seem to have escaped from a very trendy plumbing-supply emporium, gymnastics will take two forms. There will be "artistic gymnastics," what most of us probably think of simply as "gymnastics," and "rhythmic gymnastics," a women-only sport combining gymnastics and dance.

The four kinds of cycling are BMX (bicycle motocross), mountain biking, and road and track cycling.

The athlon that shows up in so many Olympic events means "prize." The triathlon, or three-part sport (swim, cycle, run), has a classical name but a 20th-century origin.

This year's Games mark the centennial of the modern pentathlon, or five-part contest (ride, fence, shoot, swim, and run). Plain old pentathlon was the Greeks' term for a contest involving the long jump, javelin, discus, a short foot race called the "stadion," and wrestling. Wrestling is a stand-alone sport today; the other elements of the classical pentathlon are part of the "athletics" of the modern Games, where they are further sliced and diced into the 10-event decathlon for men, and the seven-event heptathlon for women. By the time it's all over, we should all be able to count in Greek.


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