Historic return but how much has it all changed?

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."

Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines