Olympia has been ready for years

Athens 2004

August 19, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

OLYMPIA, Greece -- Take away the spandex and the occasional megaphone to hustle along spectators. Take away the bottled water, the sunscreen, the Nike sneakers, the cell phones and the soldiers with automatic rifles patrolling the ruins.

Instead, think nude athletes preening in oil-slicked grandeur, think the stink of unbathed masses and heavy smoke from cook stoves circling the raucous valley.

Think chariot races. Think brutal, bloody and all-or-nothing fights instead of fraternal mingling of competitors vying for gold, silver and bronze.

Yesterday wasn't that much different from really ancient yesterday, except that American shot put athlete Adam Nelson fouled on his final attempt and watched gold slip from his neck to that of Ukrainian Yuriy Bilonog.

In 776 B.C., Nelson's tears of disappointment for fouling five times on his six throws and the silver medal for second place would have been immaterial. He would not have won anything, as he did yesterday.

He would have earned shame. He might have been cast out from his city. Or defected to a new city, afraid he had brought shame to his family.

Instead, there were modern comforts. Nelson's wife hugged him long and hard. She was there, for goodness' sake, inside the arena. That's different from 2,800 years ago, when she would have been forbidden, or worse.

So there are differences between what was at stake then and now.

"It's a very special venue. I feel very honored and privileged to be here," Nelson said, a wreath of olive tree branches around his head despite his disappointment over finishing anything less than first.

In antiquity, there was no room for nostalgia, no room for sentimentality or mumbo jumbo about the honor of just being here. Win or else -- that was the credo.

But we overlooked all that yesterday because the ancient landscape compelled us. We were back in time. So far back, it was hard to comprehend what we know about Olympia through anecdote or artists' renderings. It's difficult to translate the experience.

The dirt ring was billowing dust again. State-sponsored athletes were heaving iron balls into the hot, dry air, watching gravity suck them into the ground as the fans cheered.

Shot put. Center stage. Welcome home, indeed.

It was so important that even the athletes who were eliminated in early rounds could not feel completely enraged over conditions that were not conducive to good results. Shot put relies on grass landing areas to measure throws. Dents in the turf are easier to measure than vague patches in the dirt.

Mikulas Konopka, a Slovakian shot-putter who did not make the final round, merely smiled and shrugged his shoulders over sacrificing ideal conditions in favor of a return to antiquity.

"The atmosphere was quite good, but the heat was a problem. The sand was slippery and the dust, later in the day, everything goes up," he said.

Ah, but this was a small price to pay. Excellent conditions are for wimps. This was extreme shot putting. This was the place to be.

The old home of Olympia was clearly exempt from modernity's petty concerns.

Construction delays? Here?

No, not here. Not in the Sacred Grove, where pine trees, swaying in a welcome breeze, stand sentry over history, guarding the sacred precinct of Zeus.

At the core of this place is the wide patch of sun-baked dirt where the first runners ran, accompanied by the stone foundations of old temples, wrestling arenas, columns thicker and taller than a California redwood.

Please, as they would say here in a land surrounded by blue seas where time, temperature, terrain and Socratic temperament give a person no reason for worry.

Please. Greece is beyond ready. It has been ready since 776 B.C., when it all began. What have you people been doing all this time?

That was the message I heard in Olympia yesterday. That and this:

There was never a question this Olympic venue was going to be ready.

Almost 3,000 years Olympia has sat here, the center of the universe, the place where sport was all but invented. Olympia was waiting for us to come back.

It didn't need us, particularly. Not with the whispers of the ancients and the gods swirling down through the valley, so very much alive, all you need to do is imagine your most inspiring outdoor setting, then multiply it by 1,000.

The immense majesty of the Grand Canyon. The quiet hum of the high desert in Sedona, Ariz. The roar of Niagara Falls. The western plains swept flat by glaciers, rippling purple and majestic, just like the song.

All that stuff we seek out to fulfill our sense that there's something bigger, older -- all that is nature's work, nature's gift.

But this fertile place where the rivers converge in the Peloponnese where sport was born? Gods-inspired, yes. But man-made. So maybe we aren't such a lousy lot, after all.

Such green trees. Such a spirit-infused topography.

Please, this is how important sport is. The Greeks who invented just about everything that's important, including olive oil and ouzo and democracy, they put sport at the center of their universe, and such a universe it was.

Is.

The sweat and dirt were nothing anyone was eager to wash away. Not the winner. Not the loser. No one.

For this one day, modern and ancient mingled.

"It was great. I hope they have more competitions here, but I don't think they will," Nelson said.

They shouldn't. Traversing the millennia the way those of us lucky enough to get to Olympia did must be a sacred, special occasion.

Minus the stink and the piles of bones from sacrificial lambs; minus the desperate competition, the threat of exile or shame; minus the chaos of the ancient Olympics, special it was.

Less visceral. More romantic. Still ...

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