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An Ancient Field of Dreams
Jane Gottesman
August 05, 1996
The athletes came when an archaeologist revived Greece's Nemean Games
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August 05, 1996

An Ancient Field Of Dreams

The athletes came when an archaeologist revived Greece's Nemean Games

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In 1974, with little money or muscle to excavate the ancient Greek city of Nemea, a U.S. archaeologist named Stephen G. Miller sent a small group of students armed with pickaxes to chip away at the slope covering Nemea's sports stadium.

More than two decades later, as the world turned its attention to the Olympic compound in Atlanta, Miller, 54, a professor of classical archaeology at Berkeley, looked at the 2,300-year-old relic of a track that he and his team had found beneath vineyards near what is now the rural village of Nemea, 80 miles southwest of Athens. He imagined the patter of bare feet and the roar of the crowd. Cities build stadiums so that people will come, Miller observed, but what happens when you find a stadium? If he offered a revival of the ancient Nemean Games, would people come?

In Greece's classical period, people not only came to games at Nemea's stadium, they also came peacefully. "For a week or 10 days every year, Greeks stopped fighting and went off to the playground instead of the battlefield," says Miller. This truce enabled men to participate in the Panhellenic Games, the sports festival that rotated among four sites: Nemea, Delphi, Isthmia and Olympia. "The truce is a major monument in history," says Miller.

The archaeologist, who is descended from three generations of Chicago-area building contractors, left few stones unturned during the 20 years of digging at Nemea. The city's sacred shrines and stadium complex came to light layer by layer, but they didn't come with a user's manual. How everything fit together was a puzzle Miller had to solve. He found a stunning 120-foot vaulted stone tunnel leading out of the stadium, but where did it go? To a locker room, probably, because at the tunnel's other end he found columns and evidence of a public building from the same period, about 320 B.C. And those grooves in the stone starting line, what were they for? Using suggestions from an Athenian archaeologist and clues from a painted vase fragment that depicted the start of an ancient footrace, Miller commissioned a Nemean carpenter to make a hysplex—a torsion-powered starting mechanism made of rope and wood—that was supported by projecting blocks at each end of the grooved starting line.

On June 1, Miller tested the hysplex—and paid homage to the ancient Olympic festival—by staging the Revival of the Nemean Games. Some 500 runners from 28 countries wiggled their bare feet into the grooves of the raised stone line and burst down the combed dirt track after a judge yelled, "Apite!" ("Take off!") and the hysplex dropped in front of the racers. These Games had two events: the stadion dash (89 meters) and the 7.5-km Footsteps of Herakles race. The events were open to anyone 12 and older, and racing groups were determined by age and gender. Nudity was not encouraged, and women were not locked out, but otherwise the Games were as authentic as possible. The racers wore white cotton tunics, the judges wore black robes, and corporate banners were forbidden.

At dusk, after a day of hard-fought races, the sound of the herald's trumpet floated across the terraced slopes where thousands of spectators stood. In keeping with Nemea's ancient tradition, each winner was crowned with a garland of wild celery plucked from the stream near the track.

Could a track meet for everyone, fast or slow, tug on the same emotions as the "real" Olympics? Payton Jordan, 79, coach of the 1968 U.S. Olympic track team, won the stadion dash for men aged 73-88. "The fact that I can tread on the footsteps of the ancients is no small experience," he said. "This is a high moment in my career."

Karin Smith, a javelin thrower who was on five U.S. Olympic teams, was elated after winning the dash on the track that had been buried for two millennia. "It's a huge honor," she said.

After kicking up dust on the soft track, even hard-boiled archaeologists like 81-year-old Doreen Spitzer of Princeton, N.J., got into the spirit of the day. "We've all walked the ancient stadiums before," she said, "but never with them filled with the cheering multitudes. This is pretty heady stuff."