Historical Origins of the Shot Put

By THL Tegan of Anglesey, Collegiate Shot Putter

If you’re looking for a historical sport to integrate into your household’s medieval athletic games look no further than the shot put.

Tegan in 1993 (Common Sense Newspaper, T.S. Wootton High School):

The shot put has been in the modern Olympic Games since it first debuted in 1896.  Many people think that it was part of the ancient Olympiad, but they are wrong! Homer mentions competitions of rock throwing by soldiers during the Siege of Troy but there is no record of any dead weights being thrown in the original Greek sporting competitions:

Then Achilles offered as prize a huge lump of pig-iron that the powerful Eëtion used to hurl. Achilles had carried it off, aboard ship, with other of his possessions, after he had killed him. Now he announced the next competition, calling for entrants: ‘The winner of this will have iron enough for five years, and even if his farmland is remote, he won’t need to send a ploughman or a shepherd into town for lack of it, this will supply all his needs.  Up leapt steadfast Polypoetes; godlike and powerful Leonteus; Telamonian Ajax; and noble Epeius. They lined up, and first Epeius grasped the mass of iron and hurled it, but the Achaeans mocked his feeble effort. Then Leonteus, offshoot of Ares, tried and his mark was quickly passed by Ajax, whose mighty throw won him the lead. But when stalwart Polypoetes grasped and flung it, he sent it far beyond them all, like a herdsman hurling his crook and sending it whirling past his herd of cows. There was a great shout, and Polypoetes’ friends ran to carry off the royal prize to the hollow ships.

The Iliad, Bk XXIII:826-849 The throwing competition.

We know that the Greeks placed a high value on physical fitness, but when it comes to hurling stones as part of athletic competition, we can actually look to Gaelic culture.  The earliest documented evidence of the tradition can be found in an Irish book titled the “Book of Leinster,” which was written in the 12th century but describes the events of the Tailteann Games which are thought to have begun between 1800 and 1600 BC.  The Games were instituted as a tribute in honor of the dead.  The first such games were a mourning ceremony in honor of Tailltiu, the foster mother of Ollam Erenn, a master craftsman and doctor of sciences:

So Tailltiu died in Tailltiu, and her name clave thereto and her grave is from the Seat of Tailltiu north-eastward. Her games were performed every year and her song of lamentation, by Lugh. With gessa and feats of arms were they performed, a fortnight before Lugnasad and a fortnight after: under dicitur Lughnasadh, that is, the celebration or the festival of Lugh.

Book of Leinster, The Book of Invasions §57. The book is now kept at the Library of Trinity College in Dublin.  One of the events included is stone throwing, but there is very little detail beyond the name, and it is not clear how much further back in history the tradition might stretch.  But since the Tailteann Games are thought to have begun prior to the events of Troy in 1250 BC and the first ancient Olympics in 776 BC, the Greeks could have gotten athletic competition ideas from the proto-Celts and not the other way around!  Sadly, the Tailteann Games stopped at the time of the Norman invasion.  They were resurrected in 1924, but only lasted until 1932.

The concept of a festival of athleticism and games are reported to have crossed into Scotland from Ireland during the 4th and 5th century migrations of the Scotti into Dalriada (Argyll) and beyond.  The term “put” actually comes from the concept of “putting the stone”, which, according to Scottish folklore, was used by clan chieftains to help them identify their strongest men for battle purposes.  King Malcom III of Scotland (1031-1093) is reported to have competitions where bravest soldiers in Scotland would be tested in trials of strength which is the basis of the Highland Games.

The first events resembling the modern shot put likely occurred in the Middle Ages when soldiers held competitions in which they hurled cannonballs. This started in England by British military sporting groups and spread across Europe.  The term “shot” derived from this period because of the use of cannonballs.  Shot put competitions were part of the British Amateur Championships beginning in 1866 using an 18 lb. stone. Around this time, the throwing area was a rectangular, slightly raised board, which precluded any other type of throwing style other than standing still and heaving the shot across the field.

The shot used in the first modern Olympics was made of lead, while the modern-day shot is made of smooth iron or brass. The men’s shot weighs 7.26 kg (16 lbs.) and the women’s shot, an Olympic event since 1948, weighs 4 kg (8.8 lbs).

A key factor in all modern shot put styles is that the shot must be put as opposed to thrown. This is achieved by keeping the ball in close proximity to the chin in all movements prior to its release.  In the modern event, the shot is put from a 2.135 meter (7 foot) circle which allows for a variety of different throwing techniques.  The glide technique debuted in 1951 and the spin technique, also used in modern discus throwing, debuted in 1976. For the shot put, the glide technique is most prevalent, which is why it is discussed below.

The Glide Technique

ln this technique, the thrower accelerates his body from the back to the front of the circle as depicted in positions 1-4. As the thrower lands in the middle position, the legs drive forward and up and the hips and torso rotate to the front of the circle (position 5). Simultaneously, the throwing arm further accelerates the shot as it pushes away from the body (positions 8 and 9).  The optimum angle for release for the shot put is roughly 40 degrees.

Positions 1-4:

Positions 5-9:

Stone “putting” is an easy competition to integrate into your households’ medieval athletic competitions and is documentable for a number of different historical periods. Happy throwing!


O’Reilly, John Boyle, “Athletics and Manly Sport”, (Boston, Pilot Publishing Company 1890).

White, Colin, “Projectile Dynamics in Sports: Principles and Applications” (New York, Routledge 2010).

Nally, T.H. “The Aenoach and Tailteann and The Tailteann Games: their origins, history and ancient associations” (London, The Talbot Press Ltd. 1922).

Joyce, P.W., “A Smaller, Social History of Ancient Ireland: Treating of the Government, Military System, and Law; Religion, Learning, and Art; Trades, Industries, and Commerce; Manners, Customs, and Domestic Life, of the Ancient Irish People” (London, Longsman, Green and Co. 1908).

Dziepak, Tony, “Basic Shot Put Preliminaries, Power Position, Delivery, And Follow-Through”, www.everythingtrackandfield.com (retrieved March 19, 2023).

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Shot Put”, https://www.britannica.com/sports/shot-put (retrieved March 19, 2023).

Diffley, Sean, “What a pity ‘sacred flame’ will miss ancient Tailteann Games”,The Independent, www.independent.ie (March 3, 2012, retrieved March 19, 2023)

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