Nemean Games!

Trip Start Jun 01, 2008
Trip End Jun 30, 2008

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Flag of Greece  , Peloponnese,
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Today was the first day of summer, also the first full moon after the summer solstice (well, actually, it was all sort of the same day), and thus was the traditional date on which the ancient Nemean Games were held.  We celebrated by attended the modern Nemean Games.  And it was AMAZING!

The ancient Nemean Games were similar to the ancient Olympic Games: religious athletic events held every four years in which any male who was Greek could participate.  They were just as well known in antiquity as the Olympic Games but, of course, were not quite so ancient.  The modern revived games have taken a different approach from the modern Olympics.  Instead of nearly professional athletes, anyone, and I mean any one, can participate in the modern Nemean games and the only event is running.  Short half-stadion races are held in the morning and early afternoon, with runners competing against their own age group and women against women, men against men.  In the afternoon, a 7500-meter race is held, recreating the first labor of Herakles (Hercules).  Herakles killed the Nemean lion, a fierce almost impervious beast who had been ravaging the countryside, and carried it to Kleonia on his shoulders.

We meant to get an early start, both because of possible traffic and because of heat, but we left late.  I was out really late last night trying to catch up on my blogging and posting of photos.  However, we've been so busy that I was really too tired to think straight.  I made a lot of mistakes, correcting which slowed me down a lot.  Worse, my phone suddenly gave me a signal that I'd missed a call.  Since Karen was back at the hotel waiting for my knock to let me in, I thought she was perhaps trying to call me from the room.  I checked my recent calls and dialed the top number without thinking.  Nope: it wasn't the Hotel, it was her friend Efstathios in Athens--who hadn't called tonight but two days ago--and it was now well after midnight!  Oops!  I was very embarrassed but, more importantly, realized it was time to knock off, even if I wasn't finished.  By the time I made my way back through Nauplio to the Victory Hotel, I was even more tired and got off on the wrong floor, easy to do at the best of times because Greeks considers the first floor to be what we call the second floor.  So I was pounding on the wrong room door for almost a minute before realizing my mistake.  Fortunately, the residents of that room must have been out watching the soccer game because they didn't answer.  I realized I just can't stay out that late again.

So, as I said, we got a late start.  I woke a bit too early but got at least six hours of sleep.  Still, I needed two cups of tea to really get my brain charged up again.  Slowly we got organized for the day trip, including buying some water and picnic foods at the nearby Martinopoulos store, and headed for the site of Nemea and the Nemean Games.  I'd waited four years for this event!

The most magical aspect of these games is that they're held only at Nemean, in the same stadion where the ancient games were held.  This is possible because of the excavations here by Stephen Miller and his associates (  They found not only the stadion (or a good portion of it, the portion that didn't get eroded away during the Byzantine era) and the only known "change room" from antiquity.  Modern competitors get to change from their modern clothes in this change house (which is covered with a tent for the occasion, since ruins don't provide much privacy).  Although ancient racers ran nude, modern runners are not obliged to do so.  They are given a "chiton" (tunic) and "zoni" (tie belt) and run in bare feet.  After changing, they are led through the ancient arched corridor under the slopes of the stadion and are announced by trumpet and heralds.  They then proceed to the end of the stadion where they draw lots for starting position (as in ancient times) and line up at the stone start line.  These stones have two grooves, one for each foot.  The runners lean forward slightly over the rope and wood starting device, called the hysplex, and when the official behind them pulls the ropes, the hysplex falls and the runners start.  Originally, runners ran to a similar starting line at the other end of the stadion, but that has been lost.  So today they run to a set of stakes about 200 meters away.  As in ancient times, the winner of each heat gets a headband and a palm branch and, a modern touch, a group photo.  And when they change back into modern clothes, they receive a blue Nemean Games tee-shirt.

The day has the feel of a county fair or rural league sports competition with a lot of local people taking part, but what makes this event so much more than those is that it really is international in participation and it's set in a 2500-year-old venue!  Moreover, with the contribution of Miller's research, the local organizers show a marvellous faithfulness to ancient details, from the style and color of the clothing worn by various officials to the use of a trumpet to announce participants and winners, to the fire blazing non-stop on the altar to Nemean Earth, to the starting mechanism.  And, of course, it's in Greek.  Okay, they repeat most of it in English, but the starter gives all instructions in Greek.  The day opens with rituals that are almost religious in nature but invoke what is universal more than what was strictly ancient Greek.  Still, the tropes are ancient and beautiful.

As in ancient times, the slopes above the stadion track are filled with spectators, many of whom sit on woven mats provided, as men sat in ancient times.  In ancient times, the hills were evenly populated, with men from each city state or region sitting together in a designated location, unmoving throughout the long hot day (without sun screen, remember, or umbrellas), but today people cluster under the various shade trees, moving with the sun.  It's hot but a nice breeze comes up.  We soon move under the evergreens and olives on the west slope, forgetting to use the umbrellas we brought for the purpose.  We can smell the fire on the altar as well as wild rosemary and thyme, which line the hills.  Oleander and a wide variety of prickly plants also cover the slopes, making it a modern challenge to find a comfortable place to sit.  Wind whooshes through the pines, cicadas grind away and people shout to each other and to athletes in Greek.  When the race is run, the pounding of feet fills the stadion and people cheer.  The trumpet sounds, the same fanfare over and over again, but we don't become tired of it.

Each race is exciting!  No matter how ordinary the competitors.  Some people pump their arms and legs furiously, intending to be first, others are content to merely jog along behind, participation in an international event devoted to peace (and their ancient culture) their only goal.  Ages range from four to 84, men and women, boys and girls, all treated with equal respect, all cheered and encouraged.  The program book provided shows the names of the participants, who registered some weeks ago, and their countries.  I see Germany, USA, Canada, UK, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Albania, Cameroon, Japan, Netherlands, Georgia, Russia and Greece, of course.  A large number of 13-year-old girls have come from France; we wonder what organization they are part of.  Flags of all these countries and others stand just beyond the finish line.  We notice that some entire families are participating.  For example, one of the excavators of the site, Theodosios Zavitsas, who discovered the Nemean starting line (at a depth of seven meters), acts as one of the officials for the fourth group of competitors: his eleven-year-old grandson is running in one of the heats in that group.

The large number of races is interrupted by a couple of special events.  The first is a performance by Lyravlos (, a six-member group that plays copies of ancient  and traditional musical instruments and "interprets extant pieces of ancient Greek music, as well as pieces from our own musical tradition (rizitiko, thrakiotiko, etc.) that contain surviving rhythmic and melodic details of antiquity" (Nemean Games programme book, p. 19).  Although they are facing away from us, we can still hear them quite well: the stadion has sound properties rather like the ancient amphitheatres.  Hearing ancient music in an ancient location gives me chill bumps.  The second special event is a oplitodromos, a hoplites race by twelve members of Spartas Mores (Spartan Battilions), a group that is devoted to revival of the Lakadaimonian phalanx at the time of the Persian Wars (their purpose is exclusively cultural and educational, BTW, but their teamwork and discipline was present at all times).  They wear their helmets and carry their red and black shields and their feet thunder down the stadion.  This is really unique to watch.  It's almost like being here in ancient times, except for the whole clothing thing.

Eventually all the short heats have run and the special events are conducted, and the officials take off to organize the 7500, "Labor of Herakles" race.  The stadium empties of many spectators, too, so we snag a couple of the public mats and take siestas under the trees.  It's so nice to have a relaxed and relaxing afternoon, for once.  The temperature is somewhere over 30C (86F) but the breeze has picked up.  Children, oblivious to the heat, take advantage of the break in competition to race each other back and forth.  A family gathers near us, sharing food, conversation and rough-housing.  I listen to their Greek, happy to understand more than I usually do.  It's a three-generation group, with lots of cousins, aunts and uncles.  The moment seems eternal.  We are all part of the Earth, the site, the event.

Eventually, officials reappear and wait, staring down the arched corridor.  The runners of the 7500 m race are coming!  The excitement builds.  Finally the first runners appear.  It is actually three men, holding hands; they cross the finish line together.  This event is a celebration of community and unity, not self glory, not competition.  They ensured that they are all the winner; no one would be second best.  They all receive headbands and palm fronds.  Soon, other runners come in.  Their chitons are all almost translucent with sweat.  The first woman runs in shortly after; she also receives a headband and palm branch.   Older men and women arrive and the first kids.  The youngest participant is six; the oldest, 77.  Fathers run with sons, mothers with daughters.  I find myself wishing my feet were up to it.

By sunset, all runners had crossed the finish line and the festivities wrapped up.  After a few speeches and read letters from important government representatives and a performed poem, the participants receive their participation pins and the winners of each heat and the Labor of Herakles receive the traditional wreath of wild celery.

We zip home just before dusk faded to night, dine at another fish taverna and then come back to the hotel to organize.  We also finish watching another soccer game, between Russia (3) and Holland (1), a very different kind of athletic event.  Afterwards, while I was washing out a few items of clothes, I see and hear some fireworks going off over the Venetian fortress, the Palmidi.  On our balcony just below the fortress where I hang my laundry I have a perfect view point.  We wonder whether the fireworks are to mark the beginning of the solstice, of summer, since they'd gone off around mid-night.  But we learn the next morning that it had been a wedding, fireworks being the thing to do nowadays.  Again, the Greeks share a personal celebration with their entire community.
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