Spurned as Olympic site, Greece will race barefoot Old athletes in togas aim to revive ancient games

March 29, 1996|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEMEA, Greece -- When Hillary Rodham Clinton starts the Olympic flame on its journey from Greece to Atlanta tomorrow, for many Greeks she will be rubbing salt in a raw wound.

Athens desperately wanted to be the host for this summer's "Golden Olympics" on the centennial of their revival. What's left to save the national "philotimo" (self-honor) may, however, soon be restored with a consolation prize: the First International Barefoot Toga Games.

The June 1 games in an ancient stadium are being billed as a true revival of the Panhellenic tradition as opposed to Atlanta's "Coca-Cola commercialization."

Several hundred participants have signed up to participate from countries as far away as Japan and the United States.

These include Thomas M. T. Niles, the U.S. ambassador to Greece; Rafer Johnson, 60, the former coach of U.S. Olympic track and field team, and the 93-year-old president emeritus of the Bank of America, Randolph Petersen.

The only qualification needed is ability to complete the 200-meter and/or the 7.5-kilometer race barefoot and dressed in a toga.

The games -- brainchild of an American classics professor and a Greek mayor -- will be held in the recently excavated Nemea stadium west of Athens, site of one of three sets of games in the fourth century B.C. Panhellenic Olympic sporting calendar.

The plan is for participants to enter the stadium through a 120-foot tunnel covered with the names and graffiti of ancient sports heroes. Instead of starting blocks, they will fit their bare feet into carved grooves. The starting gun will be a contraption known as a "hysplex," with black-clad judges on hand to beat with sticks anyone trying to get a head start.

Everything, in fact, as in the good old ancient days -- or almost. "The ancient Greeks used to run in the nude. Obviously, we couldn't. So we're using togas," said Konstantinos Demetriou, who organizes the games from a desk in his Nemea pharmacy.

In another break with ancient tradition, the athletes will not have to stamp their feet in the flesh of a dead wild boar.

For the lucky winners there will be palm branches, crowns of wild celery and places of honor at post-race feasting at which offerings may be made to Zeus. The whole point, Mr. Demetriou stressed, is to have good fun in the spirit of a time when the games were open to all and were about the joy of participating.

The Nemea Games have from the beginning rejected all commercial and government help, relying on private donations, Mr. Demetriou said. "We are not even having electricity and microphones -- and as soon as you accept money from the government or commercial interests, things change."

The Greek press is enthusiastic. The games are a timely sop to a national pride badly wounded when Greece failed in its bid to be the host for this summer's centennial Golden Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had originally favored Athens, site of the 1896 Olympics revival. But it was forced to place the Greek bid below even that of war-threatened Belgrade because of pollution, infrastructure and security problems.

A howl of Greek outrage followed.

At the time, in 1990, the grand old man of Greek politics, Andreas Papandreou -- then in the opposition -- denounced the IOC decision as an "American theft."

Actress and former Culture Minister Melina Mercouri railed that the IOC had preferred "Coca-Cola over the Parthenon."

Enter, for consolation, the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games. Stephen Miller, a classics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, founded the society together with Nemea's late mayor and the father of Mr. Demetriou, after he went to the town on an archaeological dig to excavate the stadium two years ago.

The society so far has 1,200 members. If this year's games catch on, it hopes to repeat them every two years.

The first festivities are planned when runners carrying the Olympic flame pass through Nemea. "We invited Mrs. Clinton, but she was too busy," Mr. Demetriou said. A standing invitation remains, however, for her to return to Nemea June 1, take off her shoes, don a toga and get back to Olympic basics.

Pub Date: 3/29/96

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