Would you prefer to attend the Olympics in London, with the potentially dire weather, huge crowds and transport system melt-down – plus the impossible task of obtaining tickets at a reasonable cost – or the Nemean Games in Greece in an ancient stadium dating back to 2,300 BC, bathed in the warmth of a Greek summer and with no entrance ticket price attached? For us, it was a simple decision. We booked our flights and accommodation and set off to the Peloponnese, just a simple two-hour drive from Athens. We even did some sight-seeing en route, stopping to view the dramatically deep Corinth Canal, a man-made wonder which separates the Peloponnese from the rest of the Greek mainland, and seeing many ancient citadels atop the mountainous countryside through which we drove on our way to the simple fishing village of Tolon, where we were staying – just 30 minutes’ drive from Nemea. We swam in the sea every morning and every evening, and ate extremely well in the local establishments – fresh fish, lamb and stuffed peppers being amongst our favourite dishes – for around 10 Euros a head, including three courses and beer or wine, with tables either on the beach or overlooking the sea. What bliss! But I digress…
The Nemean Games were part of a Pan-Hellenic cycle of Games held 2,000 years BC, in a four-yearly cycle (as with today’s Olympics). The other three Games were held in Olympia (of course), Delphi and Isthmia. Nemea was discovered some 40 years back by Berkeley California professor of archaeology Dr Stephen Miller. It took over 20 years of excavation to reveal Nemea in all its glory. The nearby Temple of Zeus had always been easily visible, with three of its huge columns still standing more than 3,000 years after they were first built. The stadium, its tunnel and the ancient locker room (the first locker room discovered) were buried beneath more than 20 feet of earth and took a lot of painstaking labour by team after team of archaeologists. Discovery of the tunnel turned on its head a lot of the archaeological principles of the time, as this was Greek-only building work, without the intervention of the Romans, and proved that the Greeks understood the sophisticated-for-the-time method of creating self-supporting arches.
The wonderful difference between Nemea and other ancient sites is that, every four years, Nemea comes to life again, with the enactment of the Modern Nemean Games, and people from all over the world (over 100 nationalities in 2012) throng the stadium either to spectate or to run the sprint or the endurance (7.5km, largely uphill) races. The Opening Ceremony is held at the Temple of Zeus. Friday evening saw crowds of people in the sunshine amidst the excavated remains of the temple, climbing over the ancient columns, gasping when the Spartan soldiers marched in (wearing authentic armour weighing around 40 kg), listening intently to the singer (but not so intently to the many speakers!), watching the flame of Nemea being ignited by the goddess and then following the procession on foot to the nearby ancient stadium.
Judges patrol in their flowing black robes and sandals, wooden staffs in hand and sporting crowns of local greenery. Slaves, heralds and other participants, all in authentic ancient Greek costume, abound. The course is marked up (Alpha, Beta, etc.) and the ancient starting mechanism is in place. And, of course, participants run (almost) as the ancients did – not naked, but attired in a white toga-like gown called a chiton – but they do run barefoot on the ancient soil of the stadium, and they change from modern-day garb into chitons in the ancient locker room and can adorn themselves with olive oil, as did the ancients, if they wish.
On the day of the races (Saturday), team leaders in blue gowns and crowns gather each group together. An oath is taken at the entrance to the tunnel, promising adherence to the ideal of the Games, and the group (of similar age) makes its way past graffiti dating back 2,300 years along the 36m long tunnel to the bright sunshine of the stadium. Announced by a herald, they are applauded on entry into the stadium. Lots for lanes, in the form of marble cubes with a Greek symbol on them, are drawn from a large helmet. Feet are encouraged, with a prod from the judges’ staffs, to find their place in the carved marble starting blocks – toe in one groove, heel in the other. The Greek count-down for “ready, steady, go” is intoned, the starting mechanism hits the dust of the stadium floor and the runners set off, their goal (90 m rather than the original 100m) the fluttering national flags ahead of them, behind the altar with the flame of the Games flickering in the breeze. Old men and women run, athletes run, one man (from Denver, Colorado) whom I saw later walking with the aid of a stick walked the race course sans stick (good for him!), children run; the oldest were in their 90s (one woman had signed up aged 100; sadly, she didn’t materialise) and the youngest aged just four. There are many styles of runner, from the easy stride of the regular runner to the shuffle of those unused to exercise. The children are the cutest, of course – the tiniest, a little Asian girl with her hair bunched on top of her head and a chiton a tad too long for her, held the hand of one of the slaves; he walked, she tottered as fast as she could go and her mother walked backwards, filming her for posterity.
It is incredibly exciting – the atmosphere (acting out a sports day in a stadium that, in the UK, would probably be out of bounds) is electric and there are no barriers to entry or fitness requirements – it’s the participation in the event that matters. There’s no commercialism bar the modest sale, from simple tables and at fair prices, of tee shirts and mugs emblazoned with “Nemea 2012”. Water is handed out, programmes are handed out, and everything’s provided free of charge and run by kindly volunteers from the local area. The villagers invite all race participants (who are given tee shirts to acknowledge their efforts) to join them for a feast on the Saturday evening, with wines provided by the excellent Nemean wineries – exactly as they would have supplied the ancient Nemean Games 2,300 years BC. It is humbling, it is magnificent, it is inspirational… it is for families, it is for couples, it is for groups, it is for the wheelchair-bound, it is all-inclusive. The stadium itself, surrounded by trees and oleander blossoms, looks wonderful. Everyone has fun, everyone is good-humoured, everyone sees Greece at its absolute best. Bravo to all concerned.
We’ll be there in 2016 for the 6th Modern Nemean Games – just try to stop us!