What is the history of physical education in Greece?

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Ancient Greece is well known for its emphasis on physical education. In his writings, Plato expressed the need for physical education and survival skills, particularly for the mentors and leaders of the nation, because these people needed to be able to live for a long time so they could be useful and wise guides. Physical skills were taught from a young age, and Ancient Greece developed the first "gymnasiums," which were large structures where sports and races could held.

Sparta was particularly fond of physical education. Young boys were sent off to military training from early childhood. Their lives in barracks revolved partially around exercising, fighting one another, and being sent to the wilderness for survival training. Additionally, the Greeks developed the Olympics as a display of physical skills. They emphasized the need for strength, endurance, and speed, which is why they developed marathon-style races, chariot races, javelin throwing, discus competitions, wrestling, boxing, and horseback riding competitions. This emphasis on physical education has spilled over into modernity and created the foundation for modern physical education.

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In antiquity, physical education served an immediate practical purpose as a form of preparation for military service. Many of the activities that now might be considered "sports" were actually ways of building useful skills. Wrestling, popular in ancient Greece, developed skills in unarmed combat, for example.

Ancient Minoan art depicts scenes including boxing and bull-leaping with relatively young participants, suggesting that these were elements of Cretan physical education, at least for some young people. The education of Achilles by Chiron in Greek mythology also suggests that young men were taught hunting skills and exercises to build strength and endurance.

Classical Greek cities and towns had gymnasia and palaestrae, which served as educational centers, combining physical education with other forms of training. Most had tracks for running and also areas for practicing other forms of exercise, such as wrestling or throwing the discus or javelin. In Sparta, young men and women received intensive physical education, with the young boys living in barracks where they were not only taught physical but also survival skills. In Athens, there was a greater balance between physical education and training in writing, math, music, dancing, and the liberal arts.

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