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Olympics: Science of the Sporting Life
Posted 26 JANUARY 2006 (Expanded 2006 based on 1996 story)


detail: orange and black runners on greek vaseRestoring an original Olympic "venue"
The winter Olympics, which are about to start in Turin, grew out of "International Winter Sports Week," held in France in 1924 (no duh -- the Scandinavians dominated). But the Nemea Olympics are a revival of the first Olympics, held in Olympia, Greece, in 776 BC.

Eventually, the games spread to the cities of Delphi, Isthmia and Nemea. (We wonder: Did those city-states earn the honor with promises of boondoggle stadiums?)

Millennia before the five-ring logo was trademarked, nobody knew from "The Olympics." Instead, the event was called the "Pan-Hellenic" games, meaning "open to all Greeks." Amazingly, the fractious Greek city-states even stopped warring for a week or two during the games.

Man emerges from stone tunnel, carrying Olympic Torch.The original Olympics have long obsessed Stephen Miller, a professor of classics who retired from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004. Since 1973, Miller has spent summers excavating the Pan-Hellenic stadium at Nemea, a town about 80 miles southwest of Athens. The stadium was first used around 330 BC, during the era of Alexander the Great. By then, the Pan-Hellenic games had already been going for about 240 years.

2004: Torchbearer Valery Borzov, a gold-medal sprinter at the 1972 Olympic Games, carrying the Olympic torch, emerges from the entrance tunnel at the Ancient Nemea track to the cheers of local residents. All photos this page courtesy Steve Miller, University of California Berkeley

With help from graduate students and Nemea's modern residents, Miller has unearthed (literally) most of a 180-meter-long, 30-meter-wide, clay-surfaced running track, a tunnel where contestants awaited competition, a temple to Zeus, with three columns still standing, a hero shrine, and some ancient pavilions.

Miller also dug up some archaic athletic equipment: A few javelin points. A practice iron discus. Even the remains of a mechanical (not electronic?) starting gate, and of course a batch of leather sandals emblazoned with the Nike swoosh. (Nike was a Greek goddess of victory, but we made up that bit about the sandals. After all, these athletes did their thing naked -- and barefoot.)

Missing: The cash register?
In 1996, Nemea embarked on a cultural restoration, with a day-long celebration of athleticism. About 500 athletes reenacted a few ancient races before 8,000 to 10,000 spectators.

The supporting cast included judges dressed in black robes who had "switches to flog participants who broke the rules," Miller told us in 1996. "We had 'slaves' to fetch water, trumpeters to blow horns and tell the audience to shut up and listen to the heralds' announcements -- there was no PA system."

The revived games are a far cry from the hyped-up, ultra-televised five-ring circus of the modern Olympics, as Aristotelis Kallis, president of the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games, told the University of California press office in 2004: Man in blue and white runs by ancient ruins while holding the Olympic Torch"Our games may be interesting to watch, but our real goal is participation, not observation. We want everyone and anyone who has the desire to experience something of the ancient games to register." In 2004, more than 1,000 runners were expected.

Panayiotis Papadopoulos, a post office employee from Nemea, Greece, runs with the Olympic torch past the Temple of Nemean Zeus.

Going semi-pro
Just as the modern Olympics have evolved since their resuscitation in Athens, Greece, in 1896, so did the ancient Olympics change over their 1,000-year history. The first games were apparently an all-participant affair, Miller said. The original stadium at Olympia, "didn't have great facilities for spectators, there wasn't a great architectural separation between the athletes and spectators."

Far from playing to the crowd (not to mention for endorsement contracts), he said athletes apparently participated "for the joy of it." But as time passed, "the value of athletics as entertainment became greater, and they needed more space for spectators" (is this starting to sound familiar?)

Many children run along a trackAround the time of Alexander the Great, when the Nemea stadium was in full swing, he said, "you have separate locker rooms, separate facilities for athletes, you start to get an athletes' union, demanding certain prizes and customs in the games." Nemea, Miller estimates, had room for at least 30,000 spectators. Like other ancient stadiums, it was built into a natural amphitheater in a hillside.

Local schoolchildren running on the track where their ancestors competed more than 2,300 years ago.

This expansion of the original games parallels that of the modern games, which continually add events and hoopla. Yet Miller wonders if commercialism, technology and nationalism are out of control. "I believe in the idealism and the ideals of the Olympics. The commercial aspect is something of a necessary evil, one that's useful for promoting the ideal of the Olympics. But that does not mean one has to be happy about the commercialism."

Shall we drink to the Olympics?

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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