Hi­lary Bradt

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

“Ithink I’m sup­posed to run naked through Greece!” Since I never win raf­fles I’d barely lis­tened to the prizes of­fered at the posh Bri­tish Guild of Travel Writ­ers din­ner at the Savoy, even though I’d bought quite a few tick­ets since you never know. I won a trip to the Pelo­pon­nese to take part in – if I wanted – the Mod­ern Ne­mean Games. It was gen­er­ously do­nated by Sunvil. And, in­deed, I hadn’t mis­heard about the naked bit. The de­tailed rules stated: “The an­cient Greeks ran, and com­peted gen­er­ally, in the nude – a prac­tice that we do not in­sist upon.”

So where is Ne­mea and what are th­ese games? It’s all down to one man, Stephen Miller, the Pro­fes­sor of Clas­si­cal Archaeology at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in Berke­ley. In the early 1970s, Miller in­sti­gated a dig at the an­cient site of Ne­mea, hav­ing been in­trigued by aerial pho­tos. First he had to buy the land, but the cur­rent land owner was happy to sell: “Noth­ing grows there”. Ne­mea was al­ready fa­mous for its Tem­ple of Zeus and clas­si­cal con­nec­tion with the labours of Her­a­cles (Her­cules), one of which was to kill the Ne­mean lion.

Linked to the Games is also the myth of Opheltes, the baby son of King Ly­cur­gus, who the Or­a­cle had de­creed should never touch the ground un­til he could walk. But one day his nurse, Hyp­sipyle, was stopped by seven gen­er­als on their way to Thebes who asked for wa­ter. In her haste to show them the spring she put the baby down on a patch of wild cel­ery in which a ser­pent was hid­den. When she re­turned, the baby was dead. The ath­letic events, one of four of which Olympia is the best known, were sup­pos­edly cre­ated in mem­ory of Opheltes, and some of­fi­cials in the mod­ern games wear the black of mourn­ing. A wreath of wild cel­ery is worn by the vic­tors in the races which take place, like the Olympics, ev­ery four years.

On the last day of his dig in 1974, Miller un­earthed ev­i­dence of the an­cient sta­dium. This led to fur­ther fund­ing and the thrilling dis­cov­ery of the tun­nel lead­ing to the sta­dium. Par­tic­i­pants of the Mod­ern Ne­mean Games pass through this tun­nel to reach the start­ing line, just as their pre­de­ces­sors did two thou­sand years ago. Their graf­fiti can still be seen on the walls. One is the name Te­lestas, who won a box­ing event in 340 BC and the other sim­ply states “Niko” –“I win”. From the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal point of view the tun­nel is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant since it proves that the Greeks beat the Ro­mans in the use of key­stones when build­ing an arch.

Stephen Miller was re­spon­si­ble for the re­vival of the Ne­mean Games in 1996 and is still in­volved. It was he, wear­ing a yel­low robe, who shooed me away when I en­tered the run­ners’ area too soon. I should have been flogged for this mis­de­meanour – the rules state that: “He

[the judge] will be hold­ing a switch from the lig­aria tree with which he will flog any­one who com­mits a foul or does not

obey his or­ders.” I es­caped the flog­ging but ev­ery­thing else is done, as closely as pos­si­ble, in the spirit of the orig­i­nal games. Par­tic­i­pants run bare­foot, dressed in Greek to­gas or chi­tons.

And it’s only 90 me­tres. Th­ese days abil­ity is not im­por­tant, and women can take part. Par­tic­i­pants are nicely di­vided into groups ac­cord­ing to age and gen­der, so I was en­cour­aged to read that I was in a group for ‘Women whose age is 75 years’. The pro­gramme had a looser in­ter­pre­ta­tion – my friend Roz and I were in the oldest group, rang­ing from 83 to 71. When it came to it, there were a num­ber of no-shows, so we were amal­ga­mated with some of the next (younger) group.

Once our names were called we went into the tent to change into our chi­tons and, if we wanted to be ex­tra au­then­tic, smear our bod­ies with olive oil. To cre­ate the chi­tons some­one had been very busy with old sheets and a sewing ma­chine. A rope belt al­lowed us to hitch it up to the re­quired length. Then an­other roll call, and it was time to take the oath, promis­ing to up­hold the spirit of the games and do noth­ing that would bring shame on our fam­i­lies. I’d mem­o­rised the Greek for ‘ I

swear’ which sounded some­thing like ‘Gor­gonzola’ but I’d ob­vi­ously got the stress wrong. So I just mur­mured some­thing and raised my clenched fist with ev­ery­one else. “Now go forth into the sta­dium and be wor­thy of vic­tory”

said the judge (in Greek). So, as our name was called, and the trum­pet sounded, we walked or ran into the arena to sat­is­fy­ing ap­plause from the spec­ta­tors. We picked a mar­ble tablet with the num­ber of our run­ning lane on. Mine was zeta – Z. Wor­ry­ing since we’d been warned that there was some rough ground in this lane.

The start­ing line is two par­al­lel grooves in stone. It’s the orig­i­nal start­ing line and I spec­u­lated about all those fine mas­cu­line toes that had hooked into the grooves, as I looked down at my crooked ones. At least I’d cut my toe­nails. Then it was “poda para poda”, “et­time” and “apite” and we were off. I ran as fast as I could but I’m no sprinter, bet­ter at the slog­ging runs, so watched most of the run­ners’ back views as they hur­tled to­wards the win­ning line.

Still, Roz and I didn’t dis­grace our­selves. In our group of 12, I prob­a­bly came about 7th with Roz a cou­ple of places be­hind. And any­way, it wasn’t fair, the win­ner was a mere stripling of 68 (though at least she was Bri­tish). She got a vic­tor’s rib­bon and a palm frond. Roz and I got a sense of achieve­ment and an­ti­cli­max. That’s it? We’ll just have to come back in four years’ time.

Hi­lary Bradt is the founder of the Bradt Guides and au­thor of many books www.hi­lary­

Then it was “poda para poda”, “et­time” and “apite” and we were off. I ran as fast as I could but I’m no sprinter, bet­ter at the slog­ging runs, so watched most of the run­ners’ back views as they hur­tled to­wards the win­ning line.

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