Most performance-enhancing tricks used by today's Olympic athletes can only be detected using high-tech laboratory tests. But ancient Olympic athletes, it seems, used a more obvious method to improve their results: hand weights. According to a report published today in the journal Nature, standing long jumpers used stone or lead pieces known as halteres to travel farther.

Although it might seem that jumping with lead weights would be a disadvantage, Alberto E. Minetti and Luca P. Ardigo of Manchester Metropolitan University found that holding halteres of a certain size could actually propel a long jumper farther. Using a computer model of a long jumper and observations of jumping volunteers, the researchers studied how the presence of various weights affected performance. They found that a jumper swinging a pair of halteres weighing a total of six kilograms experienced a take-off speed 2 percent greater than his empty-handed counterpart did. In fact, the halteres only became a hindrance when their weight exceeded about 10 kilograms.

The team further found that skilled swinging of the weights--that is, thrusting them forward on take-off and backward just before landing--could add 17 centimeters to what would have been a three meter jump. Because haltere specimens recovered by archaeologists (top image) range in mass from two to nine kilograms and vase paintings (bottom image) depict the optimum form of haltere swinging, Minetti and Ardigo conclude that athletes in ancient times had worked out these advantages for themselves.