Yesterday I came upon a fellow bemoaning the 'modern' system of grouping opponents together by lot in the sporting world. I think this specifically concerned The Netherlands' lack of luck in selected opponents for the Davis Cup (that would be a tennis competition, for those unaware). After a short chuckle, I politely told him that choosing opponents by lot was not as modern as he might imagine, and that any sporting competition in ancient Hellas where two or more people competed against each other was decided by lot.

The ancient Hellenes actually practiced many sports that didn't require lots: all the equestrian and running events took place with all registered runners, sometimes in their age category. Young boys, for example, rarely raced against grown men. That wasn't fair, even in the eyes of the ancient Hellenes. There was one group of sports, however, that did require a form of lots. There were the combat contact sports: wrestling, boxing, and pankration.

Especially from records concerning pankration, we know how lots were used in ancient Hellas. Lucian of Samosata (Λουκιανὸς ὁ Σαμοσατεύς), who lived from 125 - 180 AD, describes how lots for pankratia were drawn at Olympia in his surviving 'Hermotimus':

"A consecrated silver urn is produced, and into it are thrown little lots about the size of a bean, with letters on them. Two are marked alpha 1, two beta, two more gamma, and so on, if the competitors run to more than that--two lots always to each letter. A competitor comes up, makes a prayer to Zeus, dips his hand into the urn, and pulls out one lot; then another does the same; there is a policeman to each drawer, who holds his hand so that he cannot see what letter he has drawn. When all have drawn, the chief police officer, I think it is, or one of the stewards themselves--I cannot quite remember this detail--, goes round and examines the lots while they stand in a circle, and puts together the two alphas for the wrestling or pancratium, and so for the two betas, and the rest. That is the procedure when the number of competitors is even, as eight, four, or twelve. If it is five, seven, nine, or other odd number, an odd letter is marked on one lot, which is put in with the others, not having a duplicate. Whoever draws this is a bye, and waits till the rest have finished their ties; no duplicate turns up for him, you see; and it is a considerable advantage to an athlete, to know that he will come fresh against tired competitors." [p. 64]
Unlike modern competitions, this proccess was repeated every round. Being a bye, which was known as an 'ephedros' in Greek (ἔφεδρος, 'reserve') was considered an advantage, so if you managed to got through the competition without ever being picked as ephedros, you got much more prestige out of the competition. Due to the bye, however, it was possible to go through the entire competition without fighting until the finale. Winning that way was recognized, but wouldn't net you much respect.

Ancient Hellenic combat sports did not take into account age or weight when picking lots. The youngest, leanest, fighter could be put up against the buffest, most experienced fighter of all. That was how Zeus had decreed it, after all. As such, I doubt modern lots are less unfair than the ancient equivalent: at least in modern times, the teams are split by level, and amateur players would never qualify for the Davis Cup. Because that would, indeed, be slightly unfair.