Watching the men’s shot put televised from Tokyo Thursday evoked for me a memory of the same event 17 years earlier in the Summer Games in Greece. In the town of Olympia, 200 miles north of Athens, the Greeks staged the men’s and women’s events in the remnant of the original stadium where the Olympics began in 776 BC. As the latest Games close this weekend in empty stadiums and fraught circumstances, I couldn’t think of a better way to describe the opposite — the majesty of the Olympics — than to share my eyewitness account from Aug. 19, 2004 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The conclusion remains the same today.
OLYMPIA, Greece — Since it is regularly the charge of news media to bear the bad news, it is a rare privilege to report the converse — a moment when humanity does a thing perfectly.
In a green swale on a warm day in the Peloponnese, the Olympics and the Greeks created such sublime delight that the soul ached for more.
A few hundred yards from the remains of the Temple of Zeus, described as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, modern civilization answered with a tiny wonder of its own.
Seventy-five athletes from 44 nations gathered on the most hallowed sporting dirt on the planet to grunt, sweat and compete for honor and reward, as some ancestors did 3,000 years earlier.
No cost, no shade, no seats, no billboards, no concessions, no mascots, pure sport.
Free of artifice and full of awe, Olympic shot putters had the honor of picking up our imaginations in their big arms and carrying us back to the pivot point of Western culture.
Even for one as stout as 6-foot, 273-pound Kristin Heaston, the American who by luck of the day’s draw became the first woman in history allowed to compete at the athletic shrine, the lift was too much.
“I should have thought more about what I was doing today instead of thinking about what I was doing in history,” she said after her morning throws failed to qualify her for the afternoon finals. But the chagrin of the Cal-Berkeley grad and Stanford strength coach faded quickly as the talk turned to her fortuitous juxtaposition in breaking an ancient segregation.
“That’s pretty flippin’ cool!” she said as she lingered on the lawn with several thousand spectators to watch the men’s competition that followed. “Some of the other girls have gone up to shower, but I just had to stay and take everything in with everybody else.”
What she was taking in was described by Iannikas Michalopoulous, a middle-aged Greek fan who paused on his walk on the berm around the stadium:
“This is life. This is death. This is Greece. This is who we are.”
If that sounds a bit florid, well, it was allowable, if not irresistible, in the presence of the majestic.
Event planners kept the pageantry simple, which made matters all the more potent.
Surrounded by a lush forest of cypress, pine, eucalyptus and olive trees, as well as the clicking hum of cicadas, the stone-block relic has one original entrance, called the krypte, whose 15-foot arch heralded the athletes’ entry yesterday as it did every fourth year from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D.
From a staging area that held the remnants of the original Olympics gymnasium, the hippodrome (chariot racing), wrestling school and the workshop where a legendary 40-foot statue of Zeus was constructed, the athletes solemnly passed single file under the arch onto the dirt plaza, then marched toward the shot put ring installed for the occasion.
Goosebumps were epidemic.
“I come from the field through the tunnel into the stadium,” said Edis Elksasevic, a thrower from Croatia in an Ah-nold accent, “and I feel like ‘Gladiator,’ my favorite movie.”
Up on the slope, a woman who has been to six Olympics, Catherine Berglund of West Seattle, was enthralled.
“I come to the Olympics more for the global community than ceremonies,” she said. “But when they walked in, I was fighting tears.”
Reverence was so thick that the public address announcer had to offer early encouragement to the audience of several thousand: “This is indeed a sacred site, but there is nothing wrong with cheering the athlete.”
After a wave of self-conscious laughter, things loosened up. Flags came out, national cheers began, goofy costumes appeared, and a modest little rock-concert decorum prevailed across the lawns. That was a bit more like the old days, when the Olympics were as much about writing, religion, politics, business, food and sex as sports.
One of the old customs — the practice of tossing from a cliff those who violated the no-woman protocol of the Games — came in for further scrutiny from the feisty Heaston.
“Nobody’s going to be throwing this big booty off that cliff,” she said, grinning. “I may have something to say about that.”
As the finals began in the afternoon, temperatures climbed into the 90s and a breeze blew dust clouds across the athletes and judges. Expectations rose too.
A Russian, Irina Korzhanenko, won the women’s gold with a toss more than four feet beyond the rest of the field. The men were eager, too eager, to match setting with performance.
Among the 60 throws from the 12 finalists, 28 were scratches, including the last one from the day-long leader, American Adam Nelson. He appeared to have launched a 70-foot-plus winner. But the judges said he fouled, putting his foot momentarily on the toe board. Nelson furiously claimed otherwise.
On the previous throw, Yuriy Bilonog matched Nelson’s best of 69 feet, 5 1/4 inches. Since Nelson had scratched on all others, the gold went to the Ukrainian by virtue of the second-best throw.
After several minutes of huddles among judges, who used TV replays, the decision was rendered publicly and Nelson surrendered his rage.
“They said I fouled, and I didn’t think I did,” he said, then offered a conclusion rare by a put-upon athlete. “They were right.”
In an honorable place, Nelson did an honorable thing.
As shadows crept over the field that still holds the marble strips for sprint-race starting lines from the original Games, the six medalists accepted the traditional crown of olive wreaths in a presentation featuring a dozen young women in white gowns.
In bridging the centuries, the finest hour of the Greek Olympics made for the most splendid sports event I have had the fortune to witness.