UC Berkeley archaeologist revives ancient games, traditions in tiny Greek town

by Gretchen Kell

Ancient Nemea, a tiny Peloponnesian village in Greece, has always been old-fashioned. Dial phones didn't arrive until 1984. Cars and trucks weren't common until the late '80s. Widows still wear black for life. And the only traffic jams are caused by herds of sheep.

But it wasn't until a University of California, Berkeley archaeologist named Stephen Miller, came to town in 1973 that the agricultural village's 450 residents began to see just how ancient, and how historic, Ancient Nemea is.

Initially, the professor, who taught classics in Berkeley's College of Letters and Science, was scoffed at as he began digging in a hollow on a hill for a 2,300-year-old athletic stadium. "I'd hear big mutterings in the coffeehouse," said Miller, 54. "They'd say, 'There's no stadium there, just a pit. All Miller is doing is making another pit."

But after 22 years of watching Miller uncover physical proof of their history - including the stadium,

a track, the world's oldest existing athletic locker room and a vaulted, graffiti-inscribed tunnel - and watching dignitaries, scholars and reporters flock to what became

a 45-acre archaeological site and museum, the residents' doubt turned to pride.

For one day last summer, in an unprecedented gesture, the sleepy village opened its doors to the world, inviting visitors not only to view the past, but to experience it firsthand.

On June 1, led by Miller and a group called the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games, Ancient Nemea hosted the 1996 Nemean Games, a revival of ancient foot races once held in the stadium. The Panhellenic Games, as they were called, also took place long

ago in Olympia, Delphi and Isthmia and included other athletic events.

As for Miller, the former stranger, he now is regarded as "one of our own people," said Aristotle Kallis, a Greek doctor and president of the society. "What is the word in English for the metal more valuable that gold? Platinum? Stefanos Miller is platinum to us. He gave us our history, and everyone here loves him."

Early on the morning of the 1996 Nemean Games, tour buses and rental cars poured into Ancient Nemea, where the sun already was burning hot in a bright blue sky. But the 500 runners and thousands of spectators from more than 30 countries were not allowed to disembark at the stadium gate.

To keep the games as authentic as possible, the crowd walked up a hill to the games. Unlike the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the stadium was cloaked not in corporate banners but in its own beauty - a landscape of

oleander bushes, cypress trees, vineyards, white rock and poppies. Winners of the two events - a 100-meter sprint and a 7.5 kilometer race - would not receive medals but a traditional crown of wild celery.

Authentic costumes sewn by local women were worn by those playing the roles of judges, slaves, heralds and trumpeters. Judges wore long black togas, laurel wreaths and sandals and carried switches to flog unruly athletes.

Spectators watched the foot races for free, and many spent the entire day camped on the steep, grassy banks of the stadium. Chairs were available, but many people lounged on rag rugs collected by villagers.

The runners, ages 12 to 88, signed in outside the ancient locker room, its aging columns covered by a large canvas tent. For the sprint, they would run, separated by age and gender, in groups of 12. Slaves inside the tent handed each group white tunics and plastic crates to stow belongings.

In ancient times, the Greeks competed nude, but at the 1996 games, participants only were required to run barefoot in the stadium. Small clay jugs of olive oil were hanging in the tent for runners who wished to rub some on their bodies the way ancient athletes once did.

While women were forbidden from competing in - or watching - the Panhellenic Games, more than 200 women and girls ran in the 1996 games. To celebrate, Lydia Legakis, a 59-year-old Greek woman, pinned to her tunic a shoulder pad on which she had painted a naked breast.

As they entered the 120-foot-long tunnel, the sprinters felt their bare feet meet cool, spongy clay. They passed graffiti scratched into the walls by ancient athletes. To keep modern runners from doing the same, Miller posted nearby a photographic replica of the tunnel blocks on which they could write their thoughts.

The runners' adrenaline surged as they exited the tunnel. A trumpet blast signaled the spectators to stop talking, and each competitor's name was read. The group then advanced to the starting line and positioned themselves behind an ancient starting mechanism, the hysplex, that Miller reconstructed from wood and cord in 1993.

After a starter shouted, "Apite!" (Go!), the runners took off, the crowd wildly cheering even those who finished last. No loudspeakers were used during the races, and the sound of bare feet slapping the clay track - also cool and soft from recent rains - could be clearly heard.

"I'm probably as impressed and excited about this as I am about the modern Olympics in Atlanta. To step on the same soil as athletes did in antiquity really has an impact on the emotions," said Payton Jordan, 79, a

former U.S. Olympic track and field coach, after winning his race. Jordan was one of the few trained runners at the Nemean Games.

The winner of each of the nearly 50 sprints held that day, as well as the winner of the afternoon long distance race, received a palm branch and had a white ribbon with "Nemea 1996" tied around his or her head. All the victors were crowned with wild celery at the closing ceremonies that evening.

Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, who arrived in Ancient Nemea at midnight, eight hours before the games began, finished his race for men ages 57 to 60. But he had witnessed several people fall or pull muscles in prior races that day. "I was trying to be careful," he said. "I have to go to China tomorrow, and I didn't want to hurt myself."

Many other members of the UC Berkeley community, including alumni, former faculty members and members of the Cal Marching Band - participated in the games.

Jan Sluizer, 47, one of dozens of journalists who covered the event, also signed up to run. "There doesn't seem to be much competitive envy today," said the UPI radio reporter, "just a sense of camaraderie."

At the end of the day, the town hosted a party outside St. Andrews Greek Orthodox church. Local residents fed the runners homemade delicacies and led Greek dances in the moonlight.

Then, as quickly as Ancient Nemea had filled that morning, it returned to its tranquil self. But no one who had witnessed the Nemean Games would soon forget the day.

Ancient Nemea, its contribution to ancient athletics long neglected, now had a sure spot in history. The revived games had been such a success that serious talk already had begun about holding the games on a regular basis.

On a more personal level, what Miller had hoped for most did come true. Participants of all ages and nationalities, by running in the footsteps of ancient

Greek athletes, had made a link with their past and felt the Olympic spirit in its pure and original form.

"In letters and phone calls, people are telling me they've done something they'll never forget," he said. "They've lived history."

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