Races Held in Greek Stadium Imitate Bygone Olympic Times

While UC Berkeley Senior Alysia Johnson is likely to vie for the gold medal in the 800-meter dash at this years Beijing Olympics, 15 other UC Berkeley students are set to put on tunics, take off their shoes and run barefoot through an ancient Greek Olympic stadium.

In the Nemean Games of 2008 there are no medals, just the opportunity to relive the ancient Greek Olympic games in a fully excavated stadium in Nemea, one of the four original Panhellenic religious centers in Greece that were part of the Olympic movement.

More than 700 people from all over the world ranging in age from six to 85 have signed up to participate in the footraces, organized by age and sex, on June 21 and 22.

UC Berkeley began doing research on the site at Nemea in the 1970s, where there is an earlier form of the Sanctuary of Zeus found at Olympia.

Though the university owns no land there, they own the scientific rights to the properties so long as they continue to do work at the site, said Professor Emeritus Stephen Miller. Excavations at the site have provided new information about ancient Greek athletic practices and Greek history, he said.

According to Miller, the first modern games were inspired by the events of July 6, 1996, when 1,500 people came to watch the stadium being handed over to the Greek state after being fully excavated and landscaped. A group of local school children and members of the San Francisco Boys Chorus dressed in ancient garb ran footraces down the track in a scene that locals wanted to make a tradition.

The next day, I was approached by some local people who said, cant we keep that magic going? Miller stated in an e-mail. Thus, the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games was formed with the purpose of allowing anyone and everyone to share in the event by becoming ancient Greek athletes.

The first games were held on June 1, 1996 and have been held every four years since, making this years competition the Fourth Nemead.

According to Miller, the largest number of competitors come from Greece, followed by the United States at a distant second.

Miller, who taught in the UC Berkeley classics department and worked on the site from 1973 until he retired in 2004, sits on the board of directors that organizes the games for the society.

The other directors include local farmers, a civil engineer and a vintner, among others, Miller said.

According to Miller, the local residents like the games because they attract more tourists to a town that was until recently omitted from many world maps.

Miller said the more-than 60 staff members are trained to the extent that current knowledge about ancient customs allows.

We do everything possible to recreate the ancient games, and most participants come away with the feeling that they touched ancient Greece … that they have gone back 2,300 years in time, he stated in the e-mail.