SAT Sample Reading-Test Questions: History Passage

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

If you’re poring over an SAT reading passage from history or social studies (anthropology, sociology, education, cultural studies, and so on), you should examine the structure of the passage to see what the author is trying to emphasize. Look at cause and effect as well as opposing ideas.

If the passage is accompanied by a graphic such as a table or chart, you can be sure that it will contain information that supports corroborative or opposing points.

Sample Questions

Questions 1–4 refer to the following passage and figure from A Brief History of the Olympics, by David C. Young (Wiley).


Sample Passage

“Victory by speed of foot is honored above all.” Those are the words of Xenophanes, a sixth century BCE philosopher who objected to athletes and their popularity. The phrase “speed of foot” may recall the words expressed in Homer’s Odyssey stressing the glory which an athlete may win “with his hands or with his feet.” The shortest foot race, the stade, was one length of the stadium track, the practical equivalent of our 200 meter dash (actually, only 192.27 meters at Olympia, the site of the original Olympic games). Greek tradition held that this 200 meter race was the first and only event held at the first Olympiad in 776 BCE.

The name of the winner of the 200 appears first in all lists of victors in any Olympiad. Some people think that the stade winner had the year named after him. This is not really true. Most Greek states had other means of dating any given year, usually by the name of one or more political leaders. But when Hippias of Elis compiled his catalogue of victors, the stade victor obviously headed his list for each individual Olympiad. Perhaps because the Olympic festival was one of the few truly international institutions in Greece, later Greeks found it convenient to use the sequence of Olympiads as a chronological reference. Thus an entry in Julius Africanus’ text will read, for example, “Olympiad 77, Dandis of Argos [won] the stade.” Subsequent years within the Olympiad are simply viewed as Olympiad 77, years two, three, and four.

As one would expect, methods of running seem to be no different then from now. Several vase paintings show a group of runners rather close to one another, their bodies pitched forward, their arms making large swings up and down. These are clearly runners in the 200, for modern sprinters look much the same. So also distance runners can be easily identified. Like their modern counterparts, they can run upright, with less arc in their leg movements, and their arms dangle comfortably at their sides. Some of these ancient athletes developed the effective strategy of hanging back with the rest of the pack, reserving some strength until near the end. Then they would suddenly break away from the rest and close with a strong spurt of speed, as if barely tired, passing the leaders who became weak and faded. Ancient sources never specify the exact number of laps in the distance race, and modern opinions vary greatly. The most widely accepted number is 20 laps, a distance of a little over 3845 meters (2.36 miles), more than double our classic distance race of 1500 meters.

The ancient stadium was shaped very differently from the modern one. It was almost twice as long as ours, and about half as wide. There was no course around an infield, no infield at all, just adjacent lanes for the runners. The athletes had therefore no gradual turns around a curve at each end, as in a modern stadium. Stephen Miller, excavator at Nemea, found a posthole not far from the north end of the stadium. He conjectures that it held a turning post. It is highly likely that, in the distance race, such a single turning post for all athletes was probably used. But in the 400, down and back, the runner would need to turn sharply around the post. Most scholars think that each 400 runner would have had his own turning post. Otherwise there would have been too much congestion at that only turn. A few vases show athletes not patently sprinters or distance runners going around a turning post. In one, a judge stands watch. But if each 400 meter runner had his own turning post, the scene probably shows a distance race.

  1. The quotations in this passage primarily serve to

    (A) offer conflicting opinions

    (B) establish an authoritative voice

    (C) invite the reader to conduct further research

    (D) give a sense of Greek literary style

  2. According to information presented in the passage and accompanying figure, the area where the Olympiad took place

    (A) devoted less space to athletic contests than to other activities

    (B) was consecrated to the gods

    (C) was rectangular in shape

    (D) fulfilled athletes’ needs

  3. According to the passage, which of the following statements is correct?

    (A) Winners earned glory for the state they represented, not for themselves.

    (B) The Greek stadium was similar to modern arenas.

    (C) The Olympiads served as a common reference point for time.

    (D) Running styles differed in ancient times.

  4. The author’s comment “as one would expect” (paragraph 3, sentence 1) is probably based on

    (A) his own experience as a runner

    (B) the fact that human anatomy does not change

    (C) recent archeological discoveries

    (D) information from contemporary literature

Answers and Explanations

  1. B.

    The author quotes several ancient sources for information about the early Olympic games, the Olympiad. The quotations from Xenophanes (paragraph 1, sentence 1), Homer (paragraph 1, sentence 3), and Julius Africanus (paragraph 2, second-last sentence) support the author’s statements about the ancient games, providing evidence from people who witnessed them or who lived in ancient times and therefore were likely to know what they were talking — well, writing — about. These ancient commentators (like the experts on television during the modern games) have knowledge, and therefore, authority. As Choice (B) says, they establish an authoritative voice.

  2. A.

    The figure accompanying this passage shows one spot — the Stadium Track — that is definitely for athletes. More space was allotted to administrative and religious structures, including the “treasuries,” three altars, one temple, and a council house. Therefore, Choice (A) fits nicely here. Choice (B) is tempting, given the many religious references in the figure, but nothing in either the passage or the drawing proves that the Olympic area was consecrated to the gods. Choice (A) is correct.

  3. C.

    Paragraph 2, sentence 6 tells you that “later Greeks found it convenient to use the sequence of Olympiads as a chronological reference” probably because the Olympics were “one of the few truly international institutions in Greece.” Choice (C) works because it refers to a common chronological reference point — a measure of time for all states.

  4. B.

    Paragraph 3 discusses running styles as depicted on ancient vases. The runners are compared to modern sprinters and long-distance racers. However, the author never mentions anything about himself. He may be a runner, but he may also be a couch potato who spends days watching athletic events on television. Choice (A) is a dud. Choice (C) doesn’t work either, because you don’t know when the vases were discovered — last week or centuries ago. Choice (D) is a nonstarter because all the evidence about running methods comes from vases, not from literature. You’re left with Choice (B), which is a good bet because human anatomy doesnt change. Plus the paragraph devotes much attention to the way arms and legs move in each type of race. Arms and legs are parts of the body — human anatomy.