There can never be a better by-line for a track and field athletics writer than, from Olympia. My visit there four years ago, at the beginning of the Games 2004 was the highlight of my Olympic writing career. Here is the piece…
The sun was already well up over the Hill of Kronos, bathing the rudimentary arena in a stark Peloponnese light, when, at 0833 local time yesterday, Kristin Heaston became the first true Olympian in 1,700 years.
Heaston, 28, from the San Francisco Bay area, was also the first woman to compete officially at Olympia. Women were banned from competing at the ancient games, which began here in 776BC, and continued uninterrupted every four years (an Olympiad) for more than 1,000 years. But there were a couple of interlopers, notably Kallipatria, who dressed as a man in order to watch her sons compete. After that, the men competed naked, to avoid such embarrassments.
Some critics scoffed at staging the shot put here in 2004. It is a relatively low-key event in modern Olympic terms, and one that was not part of the ancient games. But, after a poorly attended first few days at the games of the XXVIII Olympiad in Athens, the crowds turned up in droves at Olympia in Elis. And that was just for the early-morning qualifying. There were at least 3,000 more than the expected 15,000 spectators sitting on the grassy banks overlooking the arena.
Furthermore, in keeping with ancient tradition but in fact dictated by security concerns, they walked here. Well, at least the final 3km, which is where all but official cars were stopped and buses employed.
We had it easy, however, compared with competitors at the ancient games. They came from all over the Hellenic world, assembling a month before the games, in the town of Elis, 60km north of Olympia, for their final preparations. They then spent the last two days walking to Olympia.
Archaeologists were anxious about holding any events at the site of what, in antiquity, was a religious festival dedicated to Zeus. The hurling of a 16lb ball (12lb for women) on to a gravel ground was thought to be the least destructive event.
Contrary to contemporary notions of a pure amateur sports event, the ancient games outside the competitions were a free-for-all. In addition to the poetry and dramatic contests, which easily ranked equal with sport in the Hellenic world, there were gambling, freak-shows, beauty contests and makeshift brothels. Yesterday’s affair was much more circumspect. The instructions handed out to spectators listed such prohibitions as “gambling, smoking, ambush marketing and demonstrations of a political or religious nature”.
There was plenty of drama in this reincarnation of the Games. Adam Nelson of the USA took the lead in the men’s competition with his first throw of 21.16m. Despite four consecutive fouls, he led until the penultimate throw, when Yuri Belonog of Ukraine equalled his attempt. Since Belonog had two back-up throws of 21.15m, Nelson needed at least to equal his sole valid attempt in order to win. He threw a foul, then threw a tantrum. One or two of the otherwise good-natured crowd, who had been baracking him, cheered.
Heaston was oblivious to her special place in 2,780 years of Olympic history. After putting 17.17m, to finish 22nd, and thus failing to qualify for the afternoon final, she said: “I didn’t know that, I haven’t thought about it. I was just trying to treat this as a backyard track meet.”
The final, and thus the first athletics gold medal of these Olympic Games, was won by Irina Korzhanenko, 30, of Russia, who putted 21.06m, the longest women’s throw in the world for four years. More aware of history, she noted: “I think the Greek gods helped me today.”
(Korzhanenko’s hubris led inevitably to nemesis. Two days later, it was announced she had tested positive for drugs, and she lost the gold)