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Thursday, August 19, 2004
Updated: August 20, 12:17 PM ET
The Olympic birthplace is alive

By Jim Caple
Page 2

OLYMPIA, Greece -- There are no luxury suites.

No advertisements. No retractable roof. No Dodger Dogs. No brew pub. No swimming pool. No diaper-changing rooms. No web promotions for "Spider-Man 2" on the column bases. No personal seat licenses. No seats at all, in fact.

And they dare call this place a stadium?

Well, yes, they do. In fact, with all apologies to Fenway, Wrigley, Yankee and Lambeau, this is THE stadium, the Mother of All Stadia, the field of play where the Olympics were born nearly 2,800 years ago in 776 B.C.

Jim Caple
Jim Caple on the hallowed grounds of Olympia.
Just in time for Julio Franco's rookie season.

On Wednesday, for the first time since the fourth century, the Olympics returned to its ancient home with the men's and women's shot put competition. What was it like? Imagine Ebbets Field being unearthed and batters once again slamming balls off the old Abe Stark sign. Or picture an outfielder chasing down endless flyballs at the warning track in the Polo Grounds.

And even then, you've only glossed the surface. The Dodgers and Giants left Brooklyn and New York just 46 years ago. The Olympics left Olympia's ancient stadium more than 1,600 years ago. Gutenberg, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein, the Spice Girls -- all have come and gone since the last athlete had been crowned here with an olive laurel.

But under a summer sky as blue as Cal Ripken's eyes, athletes once again passed beneath the stone archway that leads into the hallowed competition grounds -- a short walk that nearly reduced brawny, 280-pound men to tears. The only way it could have better is if they had walked in out of an Iowa cornfield.

"You think about this being the birthplace of the Olympics; and that 2,500 years ago, guys were walking in here to do the same thing we're doing," bronze medalist Joachim Olsen of Denmark said. "Of all the athletes in the world, this little group of us gets that treat. I feel very privileged and very humbled as well."

In America, we consider the 22-year-old Metrodome to be too old and in need of replacement. This stadium is more than 2,000 years old and still able to hold an Olympic event. It was like the greatest 'Turn Back the Clock Day' in sports history.

True, there were some concessions to modernity on Wednesday. In ancient times, athletes competed in the nude, their bodies as carefully slathered in oil as George Hamilton in midseason form at Cannes. On Wednesday, the athletes were clothed, a decision based on two important considerations: 1.) No one really wants to see naked shotputters; and 2.) You can't put a shoe logo on a naked body without risking blood poisoning.

A more important change was the inclusion of women athletes. In ancient times, women were largely banned from the competition site under penalty of death. Offenders were to be flung from a cliff if caught, though it is uncertain whether any women met this fate. Certainly none did Wednesday. As U.S. shotputter Kristin Heaston said, "Nobody is throwing my big booty off a cliff. I might have something to say about that."

Olympia is a lovely little tourist town on the western edge of the Peloponnese, roughly 200 miles and a five-hour bus ride west of Athens. As opposed to the generally bare, dry and brown geography of Athens (think Tucson in August), Olympia is lush and green. A pretty, tree-bordered pathway to the stadium leads up from the town, over a small creek and past ruins older than the Fenway Park bathrooms (and better maintained).

And when the path curves, the stadium site is nestled below you. Seeing it is akin to catching that first glimpse of green grass at your first major league game.

Of course, to call it a stadium is a bit of a misnomer. There are no upper decks, no steel-and-concrete structure and no Visa salesperson giving away beach towels with a credit card application. In truth, it is just a bare dirt field roughly the size of a football gridiron surrounded by low grassy hillsides. It wouldn't have been surprising to see a youth soccer game played there with parents lined up and handing out orange wedges.

Nonetheless, the setting is magical. So many historic sites seem dead when you visit -- which isn't surprising since they are, quite literally, history. Olympia was different Wednesday. As the athletes competed on the field and the fans cheered by the thousands on the hillside, the place actually came alive after a too-long slumber.

Adam Nelson
Adam Nelson came up just short in his quest for gold at Olympia.
I could almost hear the stadium sigh with pleasure, though that might have been the Bulgarian fan passing wind next to me.

Stretching the width of the stadium are two narrow rows of marble stones that mark the official start and finish lines of the ancient Olympic sprint races (a stadium official said it's a little unclear which is which). These are the literal and figurative starting lines of the Olympics, where people long ago lined up to fulfill that most basic of human urges -- to race to see who is fastest.

Every four years, as many as 40,000 sweaty fans gathered here under the blazing sun to watch those ancient games. Wednesday's competition was limited to a fortunate 15,000. And perhaps the most amazing part of the day was the ticket price: free. There wasn't even a Ticketmaster convenience fee.

"Maybe this is the way all the events should be held," American silver medalist Adam Nelson said. "To have 15,000 fans come out to see us? I mean, I think shot put is a great sport, but 15,000 people?"

No doubt, Nelson would have preferred a different ending. He won the silver medal in Sydney four years ago and had a chance to win the gold on his final toss Wednesday. He let loose an enormous throw that would easily have been the day's longest, but he stepped just out of the ring on his follow-through and was called for a foul. While gold medalist Yuriv Bilonog trotted around the stadium in triumph, Nelson pleaded with officials for three minutes that he hadn't fouled, and then broke down sobbing at his lost gold medal. "I guess this just means I'll still be around four more years."

Nelson spent a lifetime training for Wednesday; and after he fell inches short of his goal, he could think of only one thing: returning for yet another chance.

The yearning to compete and the urge to win are pretty powerful emotions.

Perhaps a couple thousand years from now, long after our civilization collapses, archaeologists will unearth the ruins of Yankee Stadium. What will they find? A few broken toilets (though they could find that at Yankee Stadium now as well). Perhaps the remnants of their 328 world championship pennants. And some hot dogs, too, because, you know, those things don't rot or decay.

But mostly, they will find the same simple truth we find at Olympia. The love of sport is eternal.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com