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Original Issue

Just Like Old Times

Ancient Olympia Stadium played host to an Olympic event for the first time in 1,610 years

ON WEDNESDAY, Aug. 18, Olympic shot-putters walked from a field of ruins through a craggy arch made of massive, worn stones and passed from summer 2004 into a distant, treasured place in history. The verdant hillsides of the ancient Olympic stadium in Olympia were flush with more than 10,000 spectators sitting on the grass as the strains of mandolins filled the warm air. "It was so great," said Danish competitor Joachim Olsen, "that I had to look down so that I wouldn't get too emotional."

Not long after the Games were awarded to Athens, organizers began arranging to contest at least one event in Olympia, 115 miles southwest of Athens in the Peloponnesus, site of the original Olympic Games from 776 B.C. to 394 A.D. Long an attraction for tourists who gleefully place their feet against the flat, weathered stones that once served as primitive starting blocks, the stadium was transformed into a timeless sporting venue. Throwing rings were laid down on the original 192-meter dirt track. Scoreboards were operated manually. (One element, though, was quite modern: Four days after the event the IOC reported that women's gold medalist Irina Korzhanenko of Russia had tested positive for a banned substance, proving that you can take the shot put out of the 21st century, but you can't take the 21st century out of the shot put.)

Early in the morning Kristin Heaston, a 28-year-old U.S. Olympian from Palo Alto, Calif., became the first woman in history to compete in the ancient stadium. (Women were not allowed to participate in the ancient Olympics.) Much later Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine and Adam Nelson of the U.S. engaged in a one-on-one duel that honored the spirit of their athletic ancestors. It was neither artistic nor record-breaking, but it was pure struggle.

Nelson took the lead in the competition with an effort of 69' 5 1/4" on his first attempt. He then committed four consecutive fouls, once dropping the shot and once falling out of the throwing circle. Bilonog twice threw half an inch shorter than Nelson before matching him on his sixth--and last--attempt. It gave Bilonog the lead, on the basis of his second-best mark. Nelson's final put would decide the competition, and it appeared long enough, except that he was flagged for yet another foul. He was left with a silver medal to match the one he won in Sydney. Bilonog danced around the stadium wrapped in his nation's blue-and-yellow flag. As Nelson left the ancient stadium, he stopped to examine the pock mark left by his last foul. He stared briefly at the ground. It was old dirt but fresh, familiar pain. --T.L.


photograph by Bob Martin


Nelson dropped the ball and finished second at the original Olympic stadium.