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Legendary location

Significance of competing in Ancient Stadium not lost on shot putters

Posted: Wednesday August 18, 2004 4:11PM; Updated: Wednesday August 18, 2004 4:11PM
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  John Godina
John Godina didn't perform well Wednesday, but he was still amazed by competiting in Ancient Stadium.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There is no more meaningful portal in all of Olympic sport than the stone archway at the west end of the Ancient Stadium in Olympia, Greece. Through this archway -- it was once a tunnel, but only one row of original stones remains -- passed athletes in the ancient Olympics, contested every four years from 746 B.C. to A.D. 394. On Wednesday morning, 175 miles southwest of Athens, on a lush, green butte in the Peloppenesus, a group of modern Olympians was connected to their symbolic heirs.

Among those who entered through the gate to compete in the Olympic shot put competition were U.S. throwers John Godina and Adam Nelson, the bronze and silver medal winners, respectively, from 2000. Over the course of one of most singular days in Olympic history -- no small description, and not one offered lightly -- they would find that the walk can energize a man and it can move him to tears. It would teach them that while we cannot reverse the noisy, electrified course of modern sport, we can, with a certain effort, delightfully recall the past. It would teach them, in the end, that the walk in one direction, into the past, can be quite different from the walk back out, into a remorseless present. At 8:44 on a cloudless morning, Godina entered the stadium, just a step in front of Nelson. In addition to being powerful and gifted athletes, both are bright, aware men. Neither missed the significance of what they were undertaking.

"It brings about a special emotion," said Nelson after the morning qualifying round.

"Incredible," added Godina. "I can imagine what it was like in the good old days, when people were fighting to the death."

The Ancient Stadium is a natural bowl of sloped hillsides, forming an amphitheater that surrounds the 192-meter dirt track where the ancient Games were contested. The site is framed by towering, slender Cypress trees and fragile, willowy poplars and further accented by green mountains far in the distance. The place is freighted with history. Not only did Games begin here, but the heart of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who revived the modern Olympics in 1896, is interred in a monument not far from the stadium. It is therefore much more than just a metaphor to say that Ancient Olympia is the heart of the Games. And even if it had no historical meaning, it would be a breathtaking venue.

For the men's and women's qualifying round in the morning, more than 10,000 spectators packed the hillsides; in the afternoon, under a punishing sun, that number was higher. In the small village of Olympia, the streets were flooded between sessions and well into the night. For the people of the town, there was hope that its tourism business would swell from memories of this one afternoon.

"The number of tourists will increase," said restaurant owner Tasia Tsoukala, as she hurriedly helped cook, serve and clean for a full house at midday. It would be disingenuous to say that the competition itself was old school. (After all, what school is more than 3,000 years old?). Yet with spectators sitting on brittle grass (assaulted by sunshine, dusty winds and a battalion of black ants) and scoreboards operated by hand, the stadium felt very much like a high school football field.

"A backyard shot put competition," U.S. thrower Kristin Heaston called it. Heaston became the first woman -- ever -- to compete in the Ancient Stadium when she throw first in the qualifying round. She failed to qualify and said later, "I needed to be thinking more about what I was doing in the circle than what I was doing in history."

Yet history was inescapable. When announcer Garry Hill intoned "Feel the mystical power of this place and feel the conversations of the past whisper through the trees," ... those overwrought words seemed plausible. Other sports have attempted throwbacks, usually marked by old-time jerseys that can later be sold at outrageous prices. In Olympia, shopkeepers hoped for a windfall from the Games, but did little to make it happen. There was nary a souvenir in town commemorating the 2004 shot put.

In the stadium, both morning and afternoon, there was a feeling of purity, and that is always a ticklish word to use around track and field, especially on the day when Greek stars Kostas Kenteris and Ekaterina Thanou withdrew from the Games under a cloud of drug suspicion. And it's worthwhile to recall that the Zanes --- statues of Zeus --- built just outside the stadium were financed by the fines levied against cheaters. (This should resonate, in particular, with shot putters).

But in all, the past was a sweet place to visit for a competition. And in the end, it was a competition. Along with Heaston, U.S. champion Laura Gerraughty threw far below her abilities and failed to reach the finals. For her, Ancient Olympia was just another place, as she plopped onto a section of grass next to her coach and cried. Reese Hoffa of the U.S., who bounced world shot leader Christian Cantwell from the Trials in Sacramento, also didn't make the finals, ending talk of a medal sweep by the U.S.

In the late afternoon, Godina fouled on his first two attempts and then threw a relatively feeble 66 feet, three inches on his last throw to miss the finals by less than inches while performing nearly five feet off his best. Half an hour later Nelson was beaten from the gold medal on the final throw of the competition by the Ukraine's Yuriy Bilonog. Nelson took the lead on his first throw with a toss of 69-5 1/4, but Bilonog matched that on his last throw and won with a better second-best throw. Nelson had one last chance, but fouled for the fifth straight time. At first he contested the foul call, but later said, "They were right and I apologized."

Nelson stopped after the closing ceremony to look at the mark made by his shot on the final foul and was convinced it would have won the competition. He shed tears while talking to his wife of five months, Laci, and took a very high road with writers.

"Five fouls is not acceptable at this level," Nelson said. "But my hat's off to Yuriy." And then this: "It's really very special here. I feel honored and privileged to have competed here."

In falling summer sunshine, he walked once more through the arch, to a van that would take him away from the site. It was a special place, indeed, but in the end, one that dispensed joy and pain like every other field in history.

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