SEARCH 2000 Games

Saturday, September 16, 2000
Even ancient Greece knew traffic jams

By MORT ROSENBLUM -- The Associated Press

 SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- Old Pindar the poet, perhaps the greatest sports writer of all time, would be amazed at an Olympics 2,500 years on. Then again, maybe not.

 Along with the glory, there was political appeasement and publicity hype, corruption and commercialism, drug use, big-money prizes, high-tech gear, and everything from traffic jams to ticket scams.

 "The odes back then glorified the sponsors as much as the athletes," Willis Barnstone, an American poet who translates ancient Greek, observed with a chuckle. "Like now, the organizers were pretty pragmatic."

 Take the chariot race Nero entered. He fell off on a turn and, though helped back on, he failed to finish. The Roman emperor won on the grounds that he would have been first had he kept his horses before the cart.

 It was a curious enough call, but everyone knew a short-fused Nero could torch half of Greece. The ancient International Olympic Committee simply waited until the emperor died and then revoked his laurels.

 But in the year he died, 68 A.D., world-class scandal tainted the Olympics. Galba, Nero's successor, demanded back the 250,000 drachmas he said Nero paid judges. It seemed that greed, not fear of scandal, explained the decision.

 Pindar would not recognize two icons taken today as ancient: the torch relay and the five interlocking rings carved in the rocks at Delphi. Both date back to the Berlin games of 1936, which Adolf Hitler turned into a Nazi propaganda extravaganza.

 A sacred fire did burn night and day at Olympia to light up nearby altars. At some festivals, relay racers passed along a torch, and the winner ignited a sacrificial flame. The rest is strictly modern.

 The symbolic rings were devised in 1913. A German filmmaker later carved them at Delphi which, in any case, is a long way from the original Peloponnesian site.

 On the grand scale, however, mostly only the details have changed.

 Anyone reporting the Sydney opening ceremony could borrow from Pindar's "Olympian Odes": "And the whole company raised a great cheer, while the lovely light of the fair-faced moon lit up the evening. Then, in joyful celebration, the whole Altis rang with banquet-song."

 At Sydney, media people outnumber the 10,000 Olympians, including big-name stars who describe the action to billions around the planet. But Plutarch, the ancient Greek biographer, also noted the relative importance of the reporter:

 "Themistocles, being asked whether he would rather be Achilles or Homer, said, 'Which would you rather be: a conqueror in the Olympic Games, or a crier that proclaims who are conquerors?"'

 Technology has improved a bit since 500 B.C., but concepts remain. The hot item today is sharkskin swimwear to cut drag in the water. Back then, naked athletes slathered on high-grade olive oil for aerodynamics.

 Greek pharmacology was short on EPO and steroids, and records are sketchy. Still, Dr. Bob Goldman, author of "Death in the Locker Room," says the earliest athletes found ways to enhance performance.

 "They used alcohol and mixtures of stimulants, including things they chewed which might have been opiates," he said.

 The first recorded medal -- it was an olive wreath, in fact -- went to Coroebus of Elis, a cook who ran about 200 meters in 776 B.C., some years before stopwatches were invented.

 Even since, the Roman buzzwords have marked every set of games: Citius, Altius, Fortius -- Swifter, Higher, Stronger.

 Today, conquering heroes fly back to airport hoopla and endorsement contracts. Then, many came home through gates cut into city walls in their honor and were lodged and fed free for life.

 There are differences, of course.

 The early games, devoted to Zeus, had far more spiritual meaning. Olympian fields were as much temples for religious devotion as sports complexes.

 "There is no modern equivalent for Olympia," British scholar Judith Swaddling notes. "It would have to be something like a combination of Wembley Stadium and Westminster Abbey."

 Women these days compete on equal footing. The earliest games were men-only, and any married woman caught sneaking a peek was pitched headlong off the cliffs of Mount Typaeum.

 Events were only foot races at first, followed by pentathlon, wrestling, boxing and chariot-racing. The javelin and discus date back a long way. Beach volleyball does not.

 The ancient games stopped for good in 395 A.D., and Olympia was vandalized beyond repair. No one thought much about them until a French visionary, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, breathed in new life.

 In 1896, the Olympics were reborn in Greece, at Athens. Four years later, the baron brought them to Paris. Nasty French infighting added what would grow into a new dimension of worldwide rivalry over venue and power.

 About then, Goldman asserts, some competitors used cocaine and speedballs of nicotine and caffeine to revive the ancient quest for an extra edge.

 During ancient times, organizers had such clout that they persuaded leaders to suspend all wars and major banditry in the Olympic spirit.

 During the past century, wars and political boycotts have hampered or even canceled the Olympics. Now the IOC is fighting to retain dwindling credibility in the face of scandal and criticism.

 But the spirit of Pindar, when he wrote of Theron and fellow winners, has somehow remained:

 "Among all mortals they drew near the gods through lavish feasts and true reverence for the mysteries. If water is best of all things, and gold the dearest possession, then Theron's virtues touch the uttermost realm of excellence."

 Today, securing a seat at the Olympics, and getting to it, is no mean feat. Yet modern spectators might take comfort in what could have been an op-ed piece by Epictetus written two millennia ago:

 "There are enough irksome and troublesome things in life; aren't things just as bad at the Olympic festival? Aren't you scorched there by the fierce heat? Aren't you crushed in the crowd? Isn't it difficult to freshen yourself up?

 "Aren't you bothered by the noise, the din and other nuisances? But it seems to me that you are well able to bear and indeed gladly endure all this, when you think of the gripping spectacles that you will see."

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