Telestas won his event back in the days well before spray paint – 340BC to be precise. He had to carve his name into the limestone blocks, a long-winded business.
The air is cool in the darkness of the tunnel. We stand together, a little nervous, no one talking. One man ties and reties the rope that cinches his unfamiliar white tunic at the waist. A judge in black robes stands ready with a switch to beat anyone who steps out of line. The distant noise of the crowd and the blast of a herald’s trumpet announces that our time is close. Down the vaulted stone walls a faint amber light comes raking and I can make out some graffiti: TELESTAS. Why hadn’t the cudgel-bearers stopped him? They must have had plenty of time. Telestas won his event back in the days well before spray paint – 340BC to be precise. He had to carve his name into the limestone blocks, a long-winded business.
Now here we are, treading barefoot out into the sunlight of the stadium, walking the same route that Telestas had taken, blinking in the same bright Hellenic light and hearing the cheering crowds as the herald calls our names from a scroll.
At the end of the 12-lane dirt track a second judge stops me and holds out an upturned bronze helmet. I reach inside and take a small cube of marble marked with a Greek letter. I’ve drawn a place in a central lane. I place my toes in two grooves cut in stone. The hysplex or starting line, two taut ropes at waist height, is positioned in front of the runners. I suddenly feel rather stiff, and painfully aware that I have not sprinted down a track for many years. The finish looks a long way away and the track very gritty and hard.
I take a deep breath and look up, over the finish, to hills that are thick with emerald green vineyards, just as Homer himself once observed: these are the very hills where Hercules (Heracles to the Greeks) performed his first task – killing the Nemean lion. And further, out of sight over the ridge, is the city of Mycenae, where Agamemnon gathered his men to set out for Troy, men including Achilles and Odysseus.
A voice behind me breaks my reverie: “Poda para poda, ettime.” This is the equivalent of, “On your marks, get set.” I lean forward, arms outstretched, ready for the mad pursuit, the posture one sees on Grecian urns. Then the starting ropes snap to the ground and there is the shout of “Apite!” GO!
As a boy I always found the Olympics completely irresistible. I’d watch every possible event, check the medal tables every night and lie awake fantasising about my own future Olympic glory, usually in the 1,500m – leaving poor Seb Coe for dead over and over again. It never occurred to me to learn anything of the Games’ origins or history. They just sprang into existence for my summer entertainment, although much less frequently than I would have liked. Why not, I complained bitterly, hold them every year?
Given this youthful question, I was rather pleased to learn that the original panhellenic games of ancient times had indeed been held every year, but at four locations around Greece: Olympia, Delphi, Corinth and Nemea. The former location was apparently the most prestigious of the four, probably because Olympia had one of the world’s seven wonders, a 12m gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus, the deity honoured by the games. Perhaps as a result of this pre-eminence, British and French classicists in the 19th century initiated several Olympic revivals but ignored the other games.
Most successful of these revivals was that organised by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who had been particularly inspired by Dr William Penny Brookes’ Olympic Games, held in Much Wenlock, Shropshire, since the 1850s. Not that the Frenchman adopted everything that Brookes had started: he recklessly dropped such events as the blindfold wheelbarrow race – fatally reducing British medal chances – in favour of classical disciplines such as the discus and the marathon.
And what has become of those modern Olympics now? On the very day that we flew to Greece to take part in the Nemean Games, the Olympic torch was passing near the end of our street in England. There were trucks filled with corporate merchandise, and loudhailers exhorting the crowds to “go crazy when the television camera vehicle comes”, presumably for the enjoyment of those at home who couldn’t be bothered to turn up in person. It seems like a debased brand: its bureaucracy stained with allegations of corruption and malpractice, its competitors – or at least a few of them – addled with drugs and greed.
The first big corporate debauch of the Olympian ideal was at Los Angeles in 1984, but just six years before that a highly significant archaeological discovery was made at Nemea, a sleepy agricultural village in the hills south-west of Corinth. Digging under the vineyards of one of Greece’s best wine regions, Professor Stephen Miller from the University of California in Berkeley found an arched tunnel, 36m long, that led into an ancient stadium.
He also found graffiti and the bones of a man who had hidden away in the tunnel, with his bag of coins, during the Slavic invasions of the late sixth century AD. The dig made headlines in the archaeological world, but what Miller did next was rather unexpected: he began planning a revival of Nemea’s games in the true spirit of ancient times.
So, after much fundraising and negotiation, the first modern Nemean Games took place in 1996, and have happened every four years since then. Not that this area is worth visiting only on those infrequent occasions: we spend the days before the event exploring some of the other notable sites. Mycenae, in particular, catches the imagination of nine-year-old Maddy, with its secret tunnel that we explore with headtorches.
Then, in the museum, there is the story of the discovery of Agamemnon’s golden death mask in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann, the man who did more than any other to alert the world to the possibility of concrete facts behind the Greek myths and legends. I’d say Maddy learned more about the ancient world in that one afternoon than she will ever get from school. Further east is Epidavros, probably the country’s best-preserved ancient theatre.
Not that this region is only about piles of old stones. On the coast south of Nemea, Nafplio is a gorgeous port town, and the seaside village of Tolon has a real Greek family holiday atmosphere. We drive on south, through the original Arcadia, stopping off for fresh apricots and dried walnuts, to Mystras, a late Byzantine city with an imposing citadel on an eagle’s crag overlooking the city of Sparti (the Sparta of ancient times). And here, arriving a little later than planned, we are brought up short by the political situation. Mystras closed at 3pm. Watch out these days: Greek government workers are taking direct action over non-payment of salaries.
Our main objective, however, is to compete at Nemea. For this fifth revival I have signed up to run, as anyone can, online, and arrive hopefully, wondering how this experience will match that of a modern Olympic corporate bonanza.
The evening before the races an opening ceremony is held in the temple of Zeus near the stadium. Families seat themselves on the fallen columns and under the pine trees. The local mayor gives a rather long speech. Then, as the light takes on that golden Mediterranean glow, a band of Spartan warriors in full battle regalia appear from among the vineyards. They trot forwards to be met by a woman in white, Ekecheiria (Peace), and a woman in black, Nemea, carrying the sacred flame. As the women pass by with an entourage of choirs in robes, the warriors lay down their weapons and a sacred truce is declared. We all walk to the stadium through the vineyards and the gathering darkness. Then a pyre is lit, an ode sung, and the games declared open.
Next day I am back at the stadium with a couple of thousand others, watching the races begin. People from all over the world are moving around in the shade of the pine trees on the dirt slopes around the running track. Everyone chats. I meet a former Olympic gold medallist (Australian cyclist Sara Carrigan), a historian from Puerto Rico, a Greek surgeon, some local singers, and Christopher Pfaff, a classics professor at Florida State University who lets slip that he teaches ancient athletics – from an academic perspective.
“They would have done it naked, of course,” he tells me. “It was all about youth and beauty.”
Were they competitive? “Very.”
I head down for my race, wondering if the easy democracy of the crowd will continue into the competition area. It does. There are amphoras of olive oil for those who want to rub themselves down, then everyone goes barefoot, but not bare-bodied. In a change to ancient tradition we all don simple white tunics. There are no nations or teams, no advantages of equipment, sponsorship or age. We are fellow competitors racing for the glory of a crown of wild celery.
The actual race is over in a flash, though my flash is not quite as short as some. I reach the finishing line in third position and watch one of our number receive the crown and a palm branch. I watch further races: there are more than 90 throughout the day, grouped by age and sex and run on the 90m track (only about half of the stadium’s original 190m has been uncovered).
Daughter Maddy competes with the nine-year-olds, partner Sophie with the 40-something ladies. Everyone does their best: the young men strain and grimace with effort, the elderly smile and wave, and one 60-year-old woman sprints like a teenager to roars of approval from the crowd.
Then I go to prepare for the final event, something rather more demanding: the Footsteps of Heracles, a 7.5km race to the stadium from the Temple of Heracles at Kleonai. Several hundred competitors are bussed over there, change into tunics and walk to the temple, which is amid the vineyards. It was here, according to ancient authors, that Hercules came with the dead lion that he had strangled to complete his first labour. Later it was Hercules who measured out the length of a stadium: 600 foot-lengths or 192m (making Hercules’s foot about a US size 15 – one size larger than Michael Phelps).
Standing in the ruins of the temple we all take a vow to uphold the spirit of the Nemean Games and to do nothing that will bring shame. Then, with a wave of the judge’s arm, we are off.
The first 4km are uphill. Hercules, I suppose, would have enjoyed the challenge. I manage to keep going and start to enjoy the race on the downhill section. Reaching the locker room once again, we have to remove our shoes (a few hardy souls have done the whole thing barefoot) then run through the cool tunnel and out into the stadium.
This, for me, is the great moment: in that dark tunnel there are no cameras, no phones, nothing of the modern world, there are only my feet slapping the same rough hard earth that ancient athletes like Telestas experienced. The tunnel exit is crowded with hands that want to slap me on the back, and smiling, cheering faces.
I do my lap of honour. I’m not first, but somewhere in the middle. I’m just happy to be there – and I think that might be what is called the true original Olympic spirit.
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