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Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Updated: August 19, 11:01 AM ET
American woman brings Olympics home

Associated Press

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece -- The Olympics have created many memorable matchups, perhaps none stranger than a 4th century Armenian prince and a woman from Silicon Valley.

First-person view
OLYMPIA, Greece -- So there we were, trapped 20 kilometers from Olympia, with the men's shot put just about to start -- an American sportswriter, a Chinese journalist, a Greek now living in Canada, his daughter and three Samoans.

I had been guaranteed the bus from Athens to Olympia took no longer than three hours. They were only off by about three. We made good time until about 60 kilometers away when John Sedemedes, the Greek-Canadian businessman, gave us the curse of death: "It won't be much longer now."

And then we started stopping at every town and village in Greece. We traveled 30 kilometers in one hour. We got trapped behind a stalled bus blocking a one-lane road. We got stuck behind a car double-parked on a one-lane road. We got stuck behind a scooter. Stuck behind a very-slow farm truck. And then when we got to Pyrgos and we were told to get off the bus. It was the end of the line. With the men's shot put starting in 20 minutes, we decided to get a cab -- all six of us, which would have been fine except there were no cabs and the Samoans were rather large, so they wouldn't have fit anyway.

As John raced up and down the street, searching for a cab, he shouted, "It's just like the Amazing Race." Eventually, we were able to put our six languages together to hail a cab and reach Olympia. We made it, but somehow, we lost the Samoans.

"This is what the Olympics is all about," Sedemedes said. "People from all over the world, coming together to achieve a common goal."

With that, he celebrated by passing out cigars. They were Cuban. As we settled in to enjoy a truly memorable sporting event, there was only one tiny, nagging concern remaining. How we were going to back home.
-- Jim Caple

Editor's note: Jim Caple is once again back on a bus. Come back tomorrow to find out more about his amazing day at Olympia.

The two became bonded forever Wednesday when American Kristin Heaston heaved a shot put over the tan dirt at the Ancient Olympia stadium to become the first Olympian at the site since the games were banned as pagan 1,611 years ago. The last recorded winner was the boxer Varasdates, who claimed lineage from Armenian royalty.

The luck of the draw also handed the 28-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif., another distinction: the first woman to compete for full Olympic honors at the birthplace of the games.

That goes back past the Roman Empire that eventually outlawed the games as Christianity took root. Back past Socrates and Plato. Back to the first recognized Olympics in 776 B.C. when a local cook took the running prize.

The weight of history just seemed a bit too much, too fast -- even for a 6-foot woman who has thrown the 8-pound, 13-ounce ball nearly 61 feet. Her three throws in Ancient Olympia failed to make the cut for the final round.

"Now that I'm done, I can take some pictures. ... I'll be able to take it all in,'' said Heaston, whose best was 56 feet, 4 inches, well short of her personal best. "I can really experience everything we are part of now.''

It's something that can truly wear the motto of the Athens Games: Welcome Home.

Moving the shot put to the ancient site in southern Greece was a tempting part of Athens' bid proposal. But it ran into complications. Greece's powerful archaeological caretakers had to be convinced that a sporting event would not damage the ruins or stadium grounds, about 200 miles southwest of Athens.

Finally, a single-day shot put competition was approved. There were conditions: no stands, permanent structures or extensive electrical wiring for scoreboards or the media.

So it began on a clear morning with a cool breeze coming from the forests and highlands of Arcadia.

Spectators came on foot across a bridge over the summer-dry bed of the Alpheios River and up a curving road. The sounds were ones connecting now with long ago: footfalls, cicadas, rustling leaves. People found places on the grass slopes coming up from the stadium floor. Music played from speakers. In antiquity, flutes and drums welcomed the games.

Just before 8:15 a.m., the 39 women athletes entered for the first round. They came through the ruins of the limestone tunnel used for centuries by the ancient competitors. Most recently, the path was taken by the Olympic flame just moments after it was lit by the sun's rays in front of the Temple of Hera, the mythical wife of mighty Zeus.

The music was a string and piano concerto from the late Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis. An athlete from the Netherlands was first, squinting into the low morning sun. Then came Trinidad and Tobago and Germany. The last in line was Laura Gerraughty, a 21-year-old student at North Carolina.

She fished for words to describe coming into the stadium, but managed only "pretty cool.'' That seemed to be just nerves talking.

She read some Greek history in preparation for the trip. She understood what was happening and its profound symbolism -- not just connecting Olympians over a chasm of 16 centuries, but marking the first steps of female athletes where the Games were born.

"It's an honor to be part of history,'' she said later.

She, too, failed to make the next round. She sat in the shade of laurel trees and watched the men throw. Then she walked up to the road -- past a marble pillar that contains the heart of Pierre de Coubertin, who help revive the modern games in 1896 -- and into the grounds of the Olympic Academy.

"I am just awed by this all,'' she said.

The shot put was not part of the ancient games, which included boxing, wrestling, running, jumping, discus, javelin and chariot races. There was even once a female chariot victor. There's an asterisk, however. She was not a recognized Olympian since the olive wreath went to the horses' owner, not the competitor.

The shot put was included in the first modern Olympiad in Athens. There, a Greek thrower named Miltiades Gouskos was having trouble with his technique. His American rival, Robert Garrett, approached him during the competition and showed him a better way. Gouskos' next throw topped Garrett's mark.

Garrett's response was congratulations, which drew surprised cheers from the Greek crowd. Garrett later edged out Gouskos to become the first Olympic shot put winner. It was long considered one of the stellar moments of the first games.

This time -- for one history-making morning -- the shot put was again the center of the Olympic universe.

"Shot putters have never felt anything like this ... to be on such hallowed ground,'' Heaston said. "Usually we're kind of on the back burner. This is totally different.''