Nemea Revisited

In June, Runners Helped Recreate the Original Olympics at Ancient Greek Site

 By Gretchen Kell

They weren't televised, endorsed by famous products or watched by President Clinton. There were no gold medals, no flashy athletic uniforms, no comfortable stadium seats.

But that was the charm of the 1996 Nemean Games, held on June 1 at a Berkeley archaeological site in Greece. That day, foot races held more than 2,300 years ago ‚ the original Olympics ‚ were recreated for untrained runners from around the world.

The games were organized by Professor Stephen Miller, who for more than 20 years has led the excavation of an ancient athletic site in Ancient Nemea. Ancient Nemea ‚ as well as Olympia, Isthmia and Delphi ‚ once hosted the Panhellenic Games, a circuit of athletic festivals that Greek athletes once competed in for a leafy crown and free meals for life.

This summer, hundreds of people from some 30 countries ran in the Nemean Games. Many also got their first glimpse of the 45-acre site, which includes a stadium and track, an entrance tunnel, a bathhouse, a locker room,a temple to Zeus and a museum.

Runners between the ages of 12 and 88 arrived early at the site and checked in at a table outside the locker room. There were two events‚a 100-meter sprint and a 7.5 kilometer race.

In keeping with ancient practice, they removed their shoes and put on a white tunic with a rope belt. They were invited to annoint themselves with olive oil and took an oath administered by a judge.

Walking through a long entrance tunnel where ancient athletes once left graffiti, each group of runners ‚ organized by age and gender ‚ would emerge onto the track.

Participants then drew marble lots from a bronze helmet to determine their lane assignments and took their places behind an ancient stone starting line. Judges stood guard with switches to flog anyone who made a foul.

Then, to cheers from spectators sitting on the stadium's grassy slopes, the barefoot runners sped down ‚ and sometimes fell on ‚ the clay track. At the finish line, the winner was given a palm branch and a white ribbon around his or her head. At closing ceremonies later that day, winners also received a crown of wild celery.

Beyond the finish line was a row of flags from each country participating in the races and an altar lit by the Olympic torch, which came through Ancient Nemea on April 1.

Among runners at the games were Chancellor Tien; former Olympic track and field coach Payton Jordan; former Olympian Karin Smith; and John Kasser, Berkeley's director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreational Sports.

The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, United Press International, the Associated Press, the British Broadcasting Company and other media outlets sent reporters to cover ‚ and sometimes to run in ‚ the event.

"I'm probably as impressed and excited about this as I am about the modern Olympics in Atlanta ‚ they're so commercial and overblown," said Jordan, 79, just after he'd won his race. "To step on the same soil as the ancient Greeks really has an impact on the emotions."

Crissa Venetti, a young Greek reporter covering the games for the BBC, decided to run at the last minute and didn't regret it. "Something happens to people who run," she said. "They're on an absolute high no matter how they placed."

Miller, who spent the rest of the summer working at the site, is considering holding the games again. In ancient times, the Nemean Games took place every two years.


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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