Just as the official Summer Olympics get underway in Beijing on June 21, an ancient athletic stadium at a UC Berkeley archaeological site in Greece that was home to the original Panhellenic Games will once again come alive with competition.
The Nemean Games, revived footraces held in the village of Ancient Nemea every four years since 1996, are not for trained athletes, but for anyone worldwide who wants to run. There will be a 100-meter sprint on the fourth-century clay track on June 21 and a 7.5- kilometer race the following day from the ancient temple of Herakles near the town of Kleonai to the stadium.
The 45-acre archaeological site, with its restored stadium, has been the focus of 35 years of excavations, analysis and study by UC Berkeley scholars. Stephen Miller, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of classical archaeology, led the effort from its outset until his retirement in 2004. He now lives primarily in Nemea, and continues to promote the footraces in his role as honorary president of the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games, the Greek organization responsible for the event.
Among this year's crowd at Nemea will be 18 UC Berkeley students and Robert Knapp, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of classics. Knapp said that while he has been involved since 1987 with the excavation at Ancient Nemea, which is 80 miles southwest of Athens, this year marks his first entry into the race.
"Now that I am retired and can make plans pretty much as I please, it seems like a great time to see what it would feel like to run where ancient Greeks ran 2,300 years ago," Knapp said. "The stadium itself is enough to inspire me, but in addition, the chance to get a 'real taste' of the ancient world in this little corner of its life is very exciting indeed."
The 1996 races drew more than 660 runners from 29 countries and who ranged in age from 10 to 93. The games, covered by reporters from The New York Times, Reuters and other major media outlets, featured judges, heralds and trumpeters dressed in ancient-looking garb. Runners included then-U.S. Ambassador to Greece Thomas Niles, then-UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, and 1968 U.S. Olympic track coach Payton Jordan. In the 2004 games, more than 1,000 participants, including then-UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl, took to the track.
With the ancient vaulted tunnel that leads into the stadium currently in a weakened state, scaffolding has been installed to shore it up for use by race participants. In ancient days, the tunnel allowed athletes to prepare themselves outside the sight of the watching crowd and then make a dramatic entrance into the stadium, just as they will do at this year's games.
UC Berkeley students will be in Ancient Nemea for the races, some of them to participate and others to assist with language translation and other event-related chores that are apart from their field study assignments with Kim Shelton, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of classics and the director of the Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology. The center promotes teaching, research and public service centered on the campus's Nemean excavations.
Knapp will be in Greece not only for the Nemean Games, but to conduct work on an ancient coins project for the Nemea Center's Peterson Archaeological Museum.
More information is available on the Nemean Games website.