Historic return but how much has it all changed?

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The Independent Online

The occasion was clearly too much for Kristin Heaton, the first athlete for 1,611 years to compete at the original Olympic Games venue of Olympia. The American opened the women's shot put competition yesterday, but could not raise her game to make the final. "I probably needed to think about what I was doing more in the ring than to think about the history," Heaton said.

The occasion was clearly too much for Kristin Heaton, the first athlete for 1,611 years to compete at the original Olympic Games venue of Olympia. The American opened the women's shot put competition yesterday, but could not raise her game to make the final. "I probably needed to think about what I was doing more in the ring than to think about the history," Heaton said.

The main athletics programme begins tomorrow in the technological splendour of the Greek capital's Olympic Stadium, but for one day yesterday the Games were transported back in time. Olympia staged the Ancient Olympics 320 times between 776BC and 393AD, when they were abolished by the Roman emperor Theodosius as a pagan practice. They were revived as the modern Games in 1896.

Yesterday's competition - the shot put was not part of the Ancient Games but was chosen because it was simple to stage in a single day - was held on a large oval dirt track in the former stadium, with a few thousand spectators watching from grassy banks. The scoreboards were operated by hand and one of the male shot putters entered the stadium, under an arch that competitors passed through at the Ancient Games, wearing a laurel wreath on his head.

However, recreation of the past could only go so far. The first Olympic athletes competed naked and had to be free-born males of Greek descent. There were plenty of women and foreigners competing yesterday - though no slaves, as far as anyone was aware - and the only free-born Greek males were in the crowd.

The Americans had been expected to dominate the men's competition, but John Godina and Reese Hoffa were eliminated and Adam Nelson had to settle for silver, the gold going to Ukraine's Yuriy Bilonog and the bronze to Denmark's Joachim Olsen. Russia's European champion, Irina Korzhanenko, who lost the 1999 world indoor title for doping, won the women's event from Cuba's Yumileidi Cumba and Germany's Nadine Kleinert.

Few countries respect their history like the Greeks and yesterday was a reminder of what they gave the modern world. As John Cleese might have asked, what have the ancient Greeks ever done for us - apart, that is, from establishing the foundations of Western philosophy, art, drama, literature, science, engineering, mathematics and geometry?

One more of their legacies is their love of sport, a trait which bemused other ancient people. The 1,000 and more independent states of Greece were constantly fighting over the country's slender natural resources and this bred a hunger for competition. They competed at everything - from reciting poetry to wrestling - and almost every major religious and social occasion was accompanied by sporting events.

Olympia is thought to have been a religious site since 1100BC. Situated in the North-west Peloponnese, 210 miles south-west of Athens, the sanctuary was named after Mount Olympus, home of the Greek gods in northern Greece.

Running races dedicated to Zeus took place there around 1000BC, but the first official Olympics were not staged until 776BC. Held every four years to coincide with the second full moon after the summer solstice, they quickly became the most popular event in antiquity, drawing 40,000 spectators from as far away as Spain.

The Games lasted five days. The main events were athletics, boxing, wrestling and chariot racing. All competitors were professionals (the Greeks did not even have a word for "amateur"), paid by civic bodies or private patrons. The only prizes were olive-wreath crowns cut from Olympia's sacred tree, but winners knew their future wealth was guaranteed.

There was much ritual and ceremony and strict codes of conduct. False starters were thrashed with whips, while cheats - the first to be prosecuted, Eupolos of Thessaly, bribed three boxers to throw their fights against him in 388BC - were heavily fined. The money raised was spent on statues with inscriptions reminding athletes that "you win at Olympia with the speed of your feet and the strength of your body, not with money".

Sport was only part of the Games - there were processions, rituals, banquets, poetry recitals, beauty contests, painting exhibitions, sightseeing tours, and sideshows featuring fire-eaters, astrologers and soap-box orators. There were also eating competitions, much drinking of wine and excellent business for prostitutes.

Yet Olympia was not ideal. There was no reliable water supply and the air was full of flies, smoke and the stench from the dry riverbeds, which were used as open-air latrines. The only inn, the Leonidaion, was reserved for ambassadors and officials; the rest of the 40,000 stayed in a huge camping ground.

John Skoularikis, the mayor of Olympia, still believes the facilities are not up to scratch. He is seeking what he calls "semi-independence" from Greece, like the Vatican City or Monaco City. "The Athens Olympic Committee got all the money from the sponsors," he said. "We didn't get a penny to renovate or look better. They just leave us the rubbish."

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