Olympic torch begins its journey to Atlanta today in Greece, stops for ceremony at UC Berkeley excavation site

by Gretchen Kell

ANCIENT NEMEA, GREECE -- The Olympic torch, bound for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, made a stop in this small Greek village today (Monday, April 1) to light the Altar of Zeus at the University of California at Berkeley's archaeological site.

On June 1, the site -- where an ancient athletic stadium has been unearthed -- will host the Nemean Games, a revival of foot races held there more than 2,300 years ago. The lighting of the altar kicked off the official period of preparation for the event, which will draw some 500 competitors from 15 countries.

In ancient Greece, the Olympics were one of a cycle of four competitions called the Panhellenic Games that took place in Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea and Olympia.

"We hope to bring that cycle back to life," said Angelos Manoulakis, governor of the region, "and to begin the revival at Nemea is a special moment for all of us who live in the region."

Early on Monday morning the torch, carried by a series of Greek runners, left Olympia, traveled through the Arcadian Mountains into the town of Tripolis and later into Ancient Nemea. The village streets were lined with hundreds of school children waving Greek and American flags.

A torch bearer then entered the 45-acre property where Stephen Miller, UC Berkeley professor of classical archaeology, and his team have been unearthing antiquities for decades. Their finds include the stadium and track, a temple of Zeus, a bathhouse and what is considered the world's oldest remaining athletic locker room.

As the torch passed its flame to the stone altar, choirs sang the Olympic hymn and the national anthems of Greece and the United States.

"When I began excavations here in 1974, I never thought that I would see the antiquities actually live again," said Miller. "But to see the Olympic torch here today means that Nemea is a visible link between Olympia and Atlanta, and that the Nemean Games will form a link between our past and our present."

Unlike the Olympics, the Nemean Games will not be held for the world's best athletes. The foot races instead are for anyone who wants to run on the ancient track. There will be just two events -- a 100 meter sprint and a 7.5 kilometer run.

"Many of us believe in the idea of the modern Olympics -- to bring together the people of the world in friendly competition," said Thomas Niles, U.S. ambassador to Greece, at the ceremony. "But most of us cannot participate because we are not so talented physically, or because of our age.

"Now we, too, have a way to be a part of the Olympic movement. I will not miss this opportunity to run where the ancients ran."

UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, State Senator Nick Petris (D-Oakland) and former Olympic sports figures Rafer Johnson and Payton Jordan also have signed up to compete.

Organized in groups according to age and gender, the runners -- ranging in age from 12 to 91 -- will compete barefoot and in tunics. They will take off their shoes in the ruins of an ancient locker room and enter the track through an ancient tunnel. When a herald calls their names, they will walk onto the sandy clay track, place their toes in ancient grooves and stand behind a reconstructed starting mechanism made of cords and posts.

Each winner will be given a traditional crown of wild celery. Anyone who false starts will receive the ancient punishment -- a flogging by the judges.

"Perhaps barefoot at Nemea," said Miller, "we will recognize our common humanity with those who came before us, and with all those who are here today."

Miller said excavation and research at the site will recommence in 1997 with a search for a hippodrome, where ancient chariot and horse races were held. That work will be possible through a new $196,000 grant Miller recently received from the Thomas J. Long Foundation.

Long, a UC Berkeley alumnus, had a 20-year interest in the site and regularly provided funding for excavations there. Since his death in 1993, his foundation has continued that interest.

After leaving Ancient Nemea, the Olympic torch, carried by a Nemean champion long distance runner, headed on Monday evening for Corinth and Athens.

The torch is due to arrive in Los Angeles on April 27 to begin its cross-continental journey to Atlanta for the July 19 opening of the Olympic Games.

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