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
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
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."
Jane Gottesman, of Berkeley, has worked at several
COLOR PHOTO: JANE GOTTESMAN Smith, a former U.S. Olympian, was elated to win the dash on Nemea's 2,300-year-old track. [Karin Smith running]